Two shows which fall into no particular mold — Passing Strange on Broadway and The Adding Machine Off-Broadway — won the near unanimous respect and praise of the critics.
The bigger surprise was perhaps The Adding Machine, a small-scale piece which came out of Chicago, a city no one looks to for new musicals. The show slayed them out there in a production by the tiny Next Theatre Company. The stark and unusual adaptation of Elmer Rice's 1923 play about industrialization and its dehumanizing effect was written by the unheralded duo of Joshua Schmidt, a composer and sound designer whose first musical this is, and Jason Loewith, the artistic director of Next, who suggested the idea. The production at the Minetta Lane is pretty much the one seen in Chicago. Critics found the unusual work, with its surrealistic and expressionistic elements, dramatic lighting and eclectic music to be invigorating, original and refreshingly different.
Passing Strange was already a known quantity to New Yorkers. Co-creator and star Stew — who is single-handedly making sure that the theatre has mono-named artists just like all the other art forms — debuted his semi-autobiographical, rock narrative at the Public Theater last year. It opened at the Belasco Theatre to notices saying it was exuberant, energizing, and full of wit, though some said it was more of a kind of concert than a musical — which was not meant as a criticism.
Critics of both musicals seemed to go out of their way to inform/caution/warn readers and theatregoers that these were not conventional musicals, and one shouldn't come to the theatres expecting Jerry Herman or even Jonathan Larson. The New York Times sent the same man, Charles Isherwood, to both shows. Of Adding Machine he said, "Do those sunny Broadway songfests make you want to gag? Would you rather go to the dentist than come to the cabaret, old chum? Maybe you secretly think that Spring Awakening is too treacly, despite the teenage sex-and-suicide angle? If you could conceivably answer any of those questions affirmatively, please consider a visit to Adding Machine." Of Passing Strange, he said, "But please don't call it a Broadway musical. You could scare away too many people who might actually enjoy it."
*** Is He Dead? Well, yes he is. Or rather, it is. The unearthed Mark Twain comedy at the Lyceum just couldn't make it to spring, despite a set of fine reviews late last year. It will close up shop on March 9, to be replaced by the red-hot rendition of Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart, and currently playing to sell-out crowds at BAM. It will play a limited eight-week Broadway run March 28-May 24.
A Bronx Tale, which ended its limited engagement on Broadway Feb. 24, announced that it had recouped its entire initial investment. The one-man show, written by and starring stage and screen actor Chazz Palminteri, will also tour.
Are Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp the Yul Brynners of their generation? Could be. They are certainly well on their way to being most closely identified with their Rent roles of Roger and Mark. The two actors — who originated the parts in the Jonathan Larson musical, played them on film and returned to the Broadway production in 2007 for a brief stay — will now star in a 2009 national tour of the show, which will launch in January.
As producer Jeffrey Seller said: "Adam and Anthony didn't just play Roger and Mark. To millions of Rent fans they are Roger and Mark. Adam and Anthony are to Rent what Joel Grey was to Cabaret and Zero Mostel was to Fiddler on the Roof."
Finally, in what is surely one of the saddest and most poignant farewells in theatre history, Dennis Letts, a star of August: Osage County, died on Feb. 22. Letts was the father of August playwright Tracy Letts. The younger Letts based the play on his own family history, and wrote the rich cameo part of alcoholic poet and patriarch Beverly Weston for his father, who came to acting late in his life after a long career as English professor. Dennis Letts starred in the Chicago premiere of the play. He was diagnosed soon after with lung cancer, but chose not bow out, but to soldier on with the project and recreate his performance on Broadway. And so, as the father of the play sat in the audience, the father of the father of play sat onstage, fathering his son's creation in existence, until he himself passed out of it.