First up was the new comedy Living on Love, penned by Joe DiPietro, which officially opened at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre April 20. The most notable thing about the show was that the cast featured the Broadway debut of opera star Renée Fleming (playing "the world’s most famous opera singer" — not much of a stretch there). Kathleen Marshall directed, a rare non-musical credit for her.
Critics were not impressed, calling the play flimsy and lightweight and a throwback.
"DiPietro's version seems more like a forgotten bottom-drawer comedy from the 1930s," wrote the New York Times. Hollywood Reporter agreed, saying "there's nothing contemporary and too little that's consistently funny about playwright Joe DiPietro's refried serving of Peccadillo."
The AP was more forgiving, saying “DiPietro...has a knack for writing for daffy characters and this play has a half-dozen of them. It feels comforting, like an old black-and-white film, and yet there's a newness here, too."
Everyone liked Fleming, though, as critics usually do, no matter what she does. "Fleming, who dots her performance with lustrous fragments from opera's greatest hits, doesn't speak as effortlessly as she sings," wrote Newsday. "But she knows about comic timing and stage presence, self-mocking all the grand-opera caricatures."
The next night, Christian Borle and Brian d’Arcy James co-starred as theatrical adversaries in the opening of new Broadway musical Something Rotten!, at the St. James Theatre. The plot of the show — a decided gamble, since its creative team is largely unknown and the cast boasts no stars — centers on two brothers, desperate to write a hit play of their own in Shakespeare’s shadow, who end up creating the world’s first musical. Casey Nicholaw, who has a good track record on Broadway (including The Book of Mormon), directed.
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AP told the producers what they wanted to hear, and confirmed they were right to hire Nicholaw, saying, "Something Rotten!...is fresh and hysterical and irreverent. It's easily the funniest thing to arrive on Broadway since The Book of Mormon."
Hollywood Reporter concurred: "This is a big, brash meta-musical studiously fashioned in the mold of Monty Python's Spamalot, The Producers and The Book of Mormon, loaded with crowd-pleasing showstoppers, deliciously puerile gags and an infectious love of the form it so playfully skewers."
But the Times disagreed, scolding "Unchecked enthusiasm is not always an asset in musical comedy, despite the genre's reputation for wholesale peppiness. Something Rotten!...dances dangerously on the line between tireless and tedious, and winds up collapsing into the second camp...'Sophomoric' is the right adjective."
Variety agreed partly with both of the above parties, saying "This shamelessly silly parody of Broadway musicals — and outrageous spoof of all things Shakespeare — was hatched from the fevered brains of brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick...Although comic desperation descends on the second act, it's still a deliriously funny show...That synthesis of highbrow/lowbrow humor is what makes the show so irresistible." ***
The Broadway premiere of the new musical Doctor Zhivago, starring Tam Mutu, Kelli Barrett, Tom Hewitt and Paul Nolan, followed, officially opening April 21 at the Broadway Theatre. The musical was based on the 1958 novel by Russian author Boris Pasternak, and directed by Des McAnuff. The poor doctor trudged his way through that snowy wasteland for nothing. The show put critics in a cranky, declarative mood, as they laid down edicts on the nature of epic megamusicals in severe terms.
"The dismay here has to do with the musical itself, a turgid throwback to the British invasion of Broadway in the 1980s," wrote the Times. "If full-throated love ballads and thundering militaristic anthems, baggy plots, highly expositional dialogue and doomed romances are your cup of tea, fire up the samovar and give the show a try. But be warned...Doctor Zhivago is inferior in most respects to the musicals it is emulating."
"Visually beautiful but one-dimensional, the show...is breathless and bombastic to the point of silly," said AP. "Nearby, in another theater, Les Miserables, another flag-waving tale of revolution, looks absolutely subtle in comparison."
"No amount of Lucy Simon's syrupy, portentous music — swamping Michael Korie and Amy Powers's workmanlike lyrics — can make us care for the synthetic, drably colored pageant," declared Time Out New York. "Des McAnuff's staging looks expensive but ugly, with cheesy video close-ups of actors, giant Soviet propaganda posters, eruptions of fire and the occasional explosion or gunshot to wake us up. To Siberia with it."
"An epic miss," decreed the Daily News. Finally, there was the finality of New York magazine’s verdict: "Can we please get this straight, Broadway? Sprawling European novels do not make great musicals."
Any show that followed those notices was bound to look good. The honor went to Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway, a story set on the colorful fringes of New Orleans’ skid row. It opened on Broadway April 23 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The production previously played Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.
"Ms. D'Amour's play has a loose, baggy structure that sometimes works against it, but this aptly reflects the aimlessness of its characters, who live day to day and would rather not think about the unhappy past or the foggy future," said the Times. New York magazine found the play "a beautiful and mesmerizing kaleidoscope of a play by Lisa D'Amour." USA today found the show "directed with enormous warmth and wit by Joe Mantello, all are drawn with both haunting specificity and an utter lack of sentimentality."
However, Newsday complained "really, we have been down such a road far too often before...This story has less original characters and a forced peg." New York Post agreed, saying "Hungry for clichés? Airline Highway is chock full of them."
All agree, however, that Julie White was fine in the central performance as Miss Ruby. Her "harrowing performance handily surpasses her superb prior work in lighter comedies," said the Times.
Closing out the season — appropriately enough — was the Broadway veteran Chita Rivera, who returned to Broadway in her first original role in more than two decades as the star of Kander and Ebb’s The Visit, which officially opened on Broadway April 23 at the Lyceum Theatre.
"The version now on Broadway is the same I caught last summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival, and it remains fascinating and alluring, if finally repetitive and frustrating," said Time Out New York.
Newsday liked it better, calling it "a haunting, haunted knot of Expressionist storytelling, a masterly 100-minute powerhouse with liltingly gruesome songs that create their own macabre world unlike anything onstage in recent memory. This will not be everyone's idea of a night on the town. But Rivera, an astonishing 82, is riveting as the mysterious, vengeful grand dame."
The Wall Street Journal was happy, too, deeming it "a cynical tragicomedy whose score is as gorgeous as its heart is hard...Kander's soaring, waltz-scented love songs are harmonized in an off-center manner subtly suggestive of dirty work at the crossroads." The Times' opinion was mixed: "despite a score that at its best has the flavor of darkest chocolate...The Visit only rarely shakes off a stasis that suggests a carefully carved mausoleum frieze. Nor does the show ever quite make peace between its uneasily twinned strands of merciless cynicism and a softer sentimentality." However, Rivera was its saving grace, with her "command of the stage and her ability to find a concerto of feelings in what might have been a single-note role."
Nominations for the 2015 Annual Drama Desk Awards were announced April 23. The Off-Broadway musical Hamilton received 13 nominations, the most of any production of the season. Broadway’s An American in Paris, based on the film of the same name, nabbed 12 nominations. Other productions that fared well include the new Broadway musicals Something Rotten!, which earned nine nominations, and The Visit, nominated for seven Drama Desks.
The first Broadway revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles announced it would play its final performance May 3. That frees up Elisabeth Moss to watch final episodes of “Mad Men” with the rest of us.