PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 28-April 3: Reasons to Be Happy

ICYMI   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 28-April 3: Reasons to Be Happy Broadway producers want to know what critics have been drinking at Joe Allen's this week — and they want to order them another round!
Irena's Vow's Tovah Feldshuh, Hair's Sasha Allen and reasons...' Marin Ireland
Irena's Vow's Tovah Feldshuh, Hair's Sasha Allen and reasons...' Marin Ireland Photo by Carol Rosegg (<i>Irena's Vow</i>); Joan Marcus (<i>Hair</i>); Robert J. Saferstein (<i>reasons...</i>)

Three shows opened on Broadway this week — Irena's Vow, Hair and reasons to be pretty — and all did fairly well by the men and women on the aisles. None, however, did better than Hair, which won what may be the best reviews of any Broadway musical this season. Nothing had been lost since the Diane Paulus production transferred from Central Park, where it played to raves last summer, according to Broadway’s arbiters of taste. It was fresh, exciting, exuberant, lively, intense and joyful. It was a breath of spring air, a sorely need jolt of energy, and all the other clichéd compliments you can think of.

Is this the same Hair that's been said to be in turmoil for months? The production that lost key cast members, had a devil of a time finding the needed capital and had to bring on additional producers? The show that pundits thought could not weather the new economic landscape? Well, I guess those who kept the faith with the show will be enjoying a last laugh — particularly after counting the half a mil that flowed into the box office following the reviews. In response to the glowing notices and healthy box office, producers said the show would play at least through Nov. 29.

Neil LaBute had reasons to be happy on Friday (but don't expect a smile from this guy), when his Broadway debut play, reasons to be pretty, received what are arguably the best notices of the prolific playwright's career. Reviewers, who liked the play Off-Broadway last year, said that cast changes and judicious cuts in the script had made the drama even better. Moreover, they found in the play — about a young man's coming to terms with and taking responsibility for his life and his relationships — revealed a more empathetic, measured and mature voice previously undetected in Labute's earlier work. Also receiving high marks were director Terry Kinney and cast members Marin Ireland, Steven Pasquale, Piper Perabo and Thomas Sadoski. Apparently, producers chose the right Labute play to bring to Broadway.

Dan Gordon's Broadway debut, Irena's Vow, didn't go as well as Labute's, but it had a pretty respectable showing nonetheless. Critics said the drawn-from-real-life drama telling of a Catholic Polish woman's attempts to save a dozen endangered Jewish people during World War II was willfully melodramatic, manipulative and sentimental — even "hokum." Still, they said it worked quite well on those terms, and earned the buckets of tears it seemed to draw from audiences. It had the earmarks of what is known as a "crowd pleaser." Most reviews assigned great credit for the play's success to the masterly, effective, "transformative" performance of Broadway bet Tovah Feldshuh in the title role. Let the group ticket sales begin!

*** Off-Broadway, there was less happiness at Happiness, the new musical from Grey Gardens composers Michael Korie and Scott Frankel, librettist John Weidman and director-choreographer Susan Stroman, which officially opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater March 30.

As a follow-up of sorts to the Stroman-Weidman smash Contact, there were high hopes attached to the production. But, aside from a couple positive voices, critics found the premise — diverse New Yorkers trapped on a stalled subway card who are coerced into locating and singing about the happiest moments of their lives — disappointingly dusty, clichéd, and uninspired, an unneeded new spin on the "stop and smell the roses" homily.

***

Two fabled hits of yesterday are headed back to Broadway.

Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson
photo by Joan Marcus
An expanded version of the City Center Encores! concert of Finian's Rainbow — the 1947 musical comedy satire by Burton Lane, Fred Saidy and E.Y. Harburg — will transfer to Broadway's St. James Theatre this fall.

David Richenthal and Jack Viertel said they will produce the Broadway transfer of the musical, which was praised during its critically-praised four-day Encores! run this past weekend. The producers stated on April 2 that Finian's Rainbow will arrive on Broadway after Labor Day. (The entry would be an interesting change of pace for Richenthal, whose past Broadway activity has been all about the weighty works Miller and O'Neill. No leprechauns in those stories.) The Encores! concert presentation will be expanded for a full production, again under the direction of Warren Carlyle, who also choreographs. No actors have been announced, but critics had good things to say about cast members Kate Baldwin, Jeremy Bobb, Philip Bosco, Cheyenne Jackson, Jim Norton, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Meanwhile, John Stamos, Gina Gershon, Jayne Houdyshell and Bill Irwin were named as stars of the first Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie. The Roundabout Theatre Company is producing, with Robert Longbottom as director and choreographer. It will play a Roundabout venue in fall 2009.

***

If The Who can pull it off, so can Green Day.

That may be the thinking behind a newly announced production at Berkeley Repertory Theater in the fall, that will adapt Green Day's lauded rock concept album "American Idiot" to the stage. Michael Mayer, the Tony Award-winning director of Spring Awakening, will direct a new musical by Bay Area grunge trio prone to Mod styles of dress.

"American Idiot" is a loosely knit suite of hard-rocking stories that tells the story of a teenage protagonist referred to as the "Jesus of Suburbia," his idolized and troubled friend St. Jimmy, and a girl known only as Whatsername. It is considered a brilliantly brutal attack on the apathy, indolence, consumerism and lack of values to be found in modern-day America, as well as the politics of the Bush administration (Bush is called "President Gas Man"). The production will play the California not-for-profit Sept. 4-Oct. 11.

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