PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 31-April 6: The Best Man, Evita and End of the Rainbow Open

ICYMI   PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 31-April 6: The Best Man, Evita and End of the Rainbow Open
 
If there are three Broadway openings in one week, it must be April.

Eric McCormack and John Larroquette
Eric McCormack and John Larroquette Photo by Joan Marcus

The first week of April — the cruelest month not only in poetry but in theatre — saw the unveiling of new revivals of Gore Vidal's political backroom drama The Best Man and Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's political backroom musical Evita (never thought I'd see parallels between the work of those three writers), as well as the New York debut of Peter Quilter's Judy Garland drama-with-music, End of the Rainbow.

The Best Man opened first. Producer Jeffrey Richards has a fondness for this particular play; he revived it on Broadway back in 2000. He had a starry cast back then, including the late Spalding Gray in a leading role. He has a starrier one this time, including Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones, Candice Bergen, Jefferson Mays and John Larroquette. This group has so many Tonys they use them for doorstops in their dressing rooms.

The New York Times found the revival, directed by Michael Wilson, "sluggish," saying "The toxins Mr. Vidal was identifying in 1960 as hovering threats on the democratic horizon are now confirmed facts of political life, so that this once-trenchant drama — concerning a battle for the nomination between a high-minded, deeply moral candidate and his canny, cutthroat rival — feels like a civics lesson drawn from a long out-of-date textbook."

Other critics, however, pointedly disagreed. Wrote Newsday, "The three-act structure of Vidal's 1960 campaign melodrama is a bit creaky. But everything else about this joyfully shrewd star-encrusted revival...feels as pertinent and as boldly impertinent as the daily machinations in our latest mud-fight to the White House." The Hollywood Reporter observed, "it may not have the satirical sting it no doubt carried back in 1960, but Gore Vidal’s The Best Man still has plenty of bite even in our more jaded age, when chronic moral affront has so polluted the national political landscape that it’s seemingly beyond clean-up."

Most reviews pointed out that, whether you thought the text was fresh or not, the sparkling cast was more than enough compensation. "It's like a greatest hits album on stage," said the AP. "Director Michael Wilson gives each a moment to shine and excitingly paces the play like a thriller." Of the cast, veterans Jones and Lansbury were awarded the most gold stars by both the critics and the theatergoers. Visit Playbill Vault, the internet's most comprehensive database of Broadway history.

Tracie Bennett
Photo by Carol Rosegg

End of the Rainbow, directed by Terry Johnson, arrived on Broadway following a run in London and a tour of the U.K. It then got its U.S. debut at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The action is set in December 1968 as worn-out, old Judy Garland is about to attempt her latest comeback through a series of concerts. (She would be dead within months.) The show features some of Garland's signature songs, including "The Man That Got Away" and "The Trolley Song."

The play opened April 2 at the Belasco. The Times called the show, like its subject, "an upper and downer at the same time." The review further stated that "Mr. Quilter's play is in some ways your standard-issue showbiz pathography, a lurid account of the twilight of an all-too-mortal goddess on the eve of destruction," but was also more than that, due to the performance of Bennett, who "is giving one of the most complete portraits of an artist I've ever seen."

The AP review echoed those sentiment: "It's hard to watch, but even harder not to watch. That's completely because of Bennett, a veteran of the English stage, but a newcomer here." Time Out simply remarked that seeing the show just one "wore me out." However, said Hollywood Reporter noted, "there’s a gulf between the vehicle and the vulnerable human being that the actress rarely traverses in this bio-drama with songs, thanks to writing by Peter Quilter that hits every obvious note except the pathos... A gutsy performance trapped in a one-note play that gives us the broad outline of the tragic star but lacks the insight to penetrate her heart."

Backstage put the appeal of the show succinctly: "There are productions that exist solely to feature a spectacular star. This is one of them. Rush to the Belasco to catch Bennett and revel in her — and Garland's — glory."

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Michael Cerveris and Elena Roger
photo by Richard Termine

Evita was the big-deal opening of the week. This Michael Grandage production, after all, is the first Broadway revival of the famous musical since the seven-time Tony Award-winning musical debuted at the Broadway Theatre over 30 years ago. The cast is headed by an oddball trio: pop star Ricky Martin as Che; Argentinian actress Elena Roger, who triumphed as Eva in London five years ago; and New York stage regular Michael Cerveris as Juan Peron.

The New York Times was not impressed. The paper missed the showbiz quality of the original production, and thought this revival too somber and "sober-sided." "This musical combination of history pageant and requiem Mass feels about as warmblooded as a gilded mummy." Backstage concurred: "If you yearn for a powerful wallop to your gut, listen to either of the original cast albums and fall under the spell of Paige or LuPone."

But The Wall Street Journal thought such comparisons were unfair. "Despite the inadequacies of its nominal star, Mr. Grandage's Evita is an impressive achievement that should be judged on its own merits, which are legion," read the review. "Even if you don't like Andrew Lloyd Webber's music, it will hold your eye from curtain to curtain."

The evaluation of Roger's gifts was mixed. She seemed to inspire back-handed compliments. "London went mad for Roger, an Argentine native of winningly diminutive size," wrote New York magazine. "Her elfin apoplexies and unique vocal interpretation were met with English bouquets. But personally, I found her performance almost too good a fit with Rice's jagged, herky-jerky lyrics: She is memorable in part because she is irritating."

And then there was this from The Hollywood Reporter: "At the risk of sounding harsh, the actress is physically unprepossessing — short and beaky — not to mention occasionally shrill in the vocal department. But she acts the hell out of the role." Others called Roger a "spitfire" and a "dynamo" and other terms one reserves for small people with tons of energy.

There was some disagreement about Martin, who played Che not as revolutionary but as "a populist observer." The Times thought Martin's performance was "barely there," while the AP thought Ricky Martin is "easily the best thing about this revival."

Visit Playbill Vault, the internet's most comprehensive database of Broadway history.

Oliver Platt
Photo by Mark Seliger

The Forest of Arden has some new refugees.

Robert Joy and Oliver Platt will be among exiles in this summer's Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It, directed by Daniel Sullivan. Joy will be Le Beau and Platt is Touchstone. They join the previously announced MacIntyre Dixon (Adam), David Furr (Orlando), Renee Elise Goldsberry (Celia), Omar Metwally (Oliver), Lily Rabe (Rosalind) and Stephen Spinella.

For Delacorte's Into the Woods this summer, three-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams was announced to play The Baker's Wife.

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Finally, Jerry Lewis is returning to his roots. The iconic funnyman will direct The Nutty Professor, a new musical based on his most famous solo film, the one in which an awkward professor discovers a potion that transforms him into suave, oily showman and Romeo named Buddy Love — who behaves suspiciously like telethon-era Jerry Lewis.

The show will have its world premiere July 24-Aug. 19 in Nashville at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's James K. Polk Theater. The cast will be headed by Michael Andrew as Professor Julius Kelp. The show features music by Marvin Hamlisch and a book and lyrics by Rupert Holmes.

Whatever happens with this project, Hamlisch and Holmes will have some great new stories for their memoirs.

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