PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 26-March 4: Critical Split

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 26-March 4: Critical Split You can't please everybody. That seemed to be the theme this past week, as a series of high profile New York openings cleanly divided the critics like hot knives through butter. The biggest premiere, of course, was the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, one of the heavy hitters of the spring season and a reunion of the talents—composer David Yazbek, director Jack O'Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell—that brought Broadway The Full Monty.
Norbert Leo Butz in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Norbert Leo Butz in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels Photo by Joan Marcus

The show, based on a film about two Riviera-based con men, seems to have lived its entire life trying to live down comparisons—first to The Producers, which some accuse it of aping, and then to Spamalot, which observers point to as its most serious competition for the affections of audiences and award-mongers. That ongoing burden seemed to inform the review of The New York Times' Ben Brantley, who spent much of his largely negative review handicapping how the musical came up short in its supposed aspirations to become the Son of The Producers. Fortunately for the show, a good number of Brantley's colleagues pivoted their thumbs in a skyward direction. One thing everyone could agree on was actor Norbert Leo Butz, who, with Scoundrels, was crowned a bona fide Broadway star.

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The week began with the Off-Broadway debut of Gina Gionfriddo's After Ashley at the Vineyard Theatre. The play, about Americans' perverse inclination for self-exploitation, was the breakout hit of the 2004 Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. But, like Omnium Gatherum before it, it proved less to the tastes of the exacting New York critics corps, inspiring as many detracting notices as approving ones.

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The same division of opinion occurred the wake of the March 1 opening of David Mamet's courtroom farce Romance at the Atlantic Theater Company. Some, such as Newsday and the Hollywood Reporter, laughed all the way to word processor, while others, including The New York Times and The New York Post, shelved the show under "Lesser Mamet." ***

The only clear winner among the week's debuts was, surprisingly, Altar Boyz. The new musical comedy about a struggling Christian boy band was conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport and features a score by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker and a book by Kevin Del Aguila. Expectations were not exceedingly high and, perhaps for that reason, critics were beguiled by the show's featherweight charms.

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Finally, Stephen Sondheim turns 75 this year! But, please, don't make a fuss. Why? Because everybody in the world already is, and you'd only confuse matters by joining in. The festivals and tributes and gala events have been popping up like mushrooms since New Year's Day. So, a word to the wise: don't invite Steve to dinner anytime this spring—he's busy.

The celebration begins March 19 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre with the most ambitious event, Wall to Wall Sondheim, a musical smorgasbord that threatens the public with over 100 artists singing for 12 hours straight beginning at 11 AM. Two days later comes Children and Art, an evening benefiting Young Playwrights Inc., and "presented" by William Jefferson Clinton and Barbra Streisand (!!!). Again, droves of talented folks will warble the master's oeuvre, including the 100 voice Broadway Star Chorus and the 60-voice Young People's Chorus of New York.

Continuing into April, Christine Baranski, Barbara Cook, Bernadette Peters and others will perform at Roundabout Theatre Company's annual spring gala honoring Sondheim. Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers is the location, April 11. The occasion will also see Steve seize the Jason Robards Award for Excellence in Theatre.

On May 10, PS Classics Inc. will release the first CD in a series of remastered private demos, with Sondheim singing, under the banner of "Sondheim Sings."

On May 17, Sony BMG Broadway Masterworks will re-release original cast albums of Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George. The discs will include special added material of Sondheim himself singing his work at performances of industry readings and presentations. What about June, you ask? Well, that's when A Tribute to Stephen Sondheim plays the Boston Pops Orchestra, with—what else?—an all-star cast.

In their odd spare moments, fans can fill the time by ordering a copy of a famed 1973 poster that utilized Scrabble pieces to spell the names of Stephen Sondheim musicals. It has been reissued to celebrate the composer's 75th. The poster initially advertised the first celebration of Sondheim's works, Sondheim: A Musical Tribute. It was a novel idea at the time.