Week in Review, March 7-13: Audra McDonald On Her Way Back to Broadway, and Critics Don't Love First Wives Club

News   Week in Review, March 7-13: Audra McDonald On Her Way Back to Broadway, and Critics Don't Love First Wives Club Peter Morgan’s The Audience, which features Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in imagined meetings with eight of her Prime Ministers, officially opened March 8 and, to the surprise of no one, Mirren was the focus of the notices.

Mirren is a master at playing Queen Liz, much in the way Hal Holbrook knew his Mark Twain and Raymond Massey his Abe Lincoln. The Audience’s move to Broadway followed a record-breaking run at London's Gielgud Theatre in 2013 for which Mirren won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Play. Morgan is also the screenwriter of the Academy Award-nominated 2006 film "The Queen," which earned Mirren an Oscar for her performance.

“The show allows the smashing Ms. Mirren to demonstrate her quick-change virtuosity in becoming the queen at different ages, from 1951 to the present, before our very eyes,” said the New York Times. “Those transformations, accomplished with sleights of hand worthy of a master magician, are probably the most entertaining and satisfying aspects of The Audience.

Richard McCabe and Helen Mirren
Richard McCabe and Helen Mirren Photo by Joan Marcus

Many reviews made a point to singling out the entrancing trickery of the many costume and make-up changes Mirren made, often while on stage, as being part of the production’s appeal. “Seldom do costumes provide the bulk of a play's drama, but in Peter Morgan's The Audience…the greatest surprises and transformations are all in the clothes,” wrote New York Magazine.

“It's a coup de theater of the old school, and watching Mirren seem to peel off years and cares is nothing short of a dazzling experience,” added the Chicago Tribune.

The words of acclaim for Mirren and the designers, however, were usually attached to a knock on Morgan. Continued New York Mag, “Daldry and his superb designers have worked more magic than has the playwright, if not as much as Mirren herself. In fact, it's difficult to justify calling The Audience a play at all: It is more like a pageant, not merely in the parade-of-costumes sense but in the theatrical sense.” “The Broadway star vehicle she's driving lacks the high-octane fuel to take her there,” said the Daily News, “even though it's stylishly directed by Stephen Daldry and eloquently designed by Bob Crowley.”

Some, however, thought Morgan did work as good as Mirren. Said AP, “perhaps the best stitching is from Morgan, who nimbly fits in exposition and big swaths of history into a coherent and touching portrait of power and majesty. And, with Mirren, even ardent anti-monarchists will clap.”

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Over in Chicago, the big opening in town was the new production of the ever-Broadway-aimed musical First Wives Club The Musical, which officially opened March 11 at 7:30 PM following previews that began Feb. 17 in Chicago’s Oriental Theatre.

Sean Cullen, Mike McGowan and Gregg Edelman go head-to-head with Faith Prince as Brenda, Carmen Cusack as Annie and Christine Sherrill as Elise. The show has a book by TV auteur Linda Bloodworth Thomason and direction by Simon Phillips and features new original songs and classic hits by Motown legendary songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, including "Reach Out…I'll Be There," "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch).”

The Chicago Tribune called the musical “troubled” in the first paragraph — not a good thing — and continued to say, “as rendered for the stage here, First Wives is a straight-up, caper-driven revenge. You never invest in the caper and there is no satirical bite; that is not what the show wants to be.” The paper likewise criticizes the show's tone and penchant for simplistic characterizations and stereotypes. Variety echoed the Tribune in complaining that the score was a patchwork on new and old: “The combination of '90s sitcom zingers and '60s Motown sound makes for an odd juxtaposition, and while the show bursts briefly into life in the second act, it's primarily a piece of theatrical plastic.”

“As of now, Bloodworth Thomason, Holland-Dozier-Holland and director Simon Phillips just sort of throw up their hands at the prospect of a proper ending, hopping from a hard-to-swallow reconciliation between Brenda and her husband to an incongruent song-and-dance finale and hoping we won’t notice,” wrote Time Out Chicago. “Cusack, Prince and Sherrill deserve a sturdier clubhouse than this.”

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The powerhouse trio of director George C. Wolfe, choreographer Savion Glover and star Audra McDonald will join forces in a forthcoming new Broadway musical with the long, scholarly, Kushner-like title, Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. The musical will tell the backstage story about the making of one of the first all-black Broadway musical hits that was also written by African-Americans. With music by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, it was called Shuffle Along and premiered in May of 1921 and had a run variously recorded as 484 performances and 504 performances — either one a remarkably long run by the standards of the time.

The plot involved two old friends who run against one another for the office of mayor of their town, each promising to hire the other if elected. Once in office, however, the two find themselves at odds. The show was noted for its score, which included "In Honeysuckle Time," and "I’m Just Wild About Harry." During its long run the original Shuffle Along employed at various times the future stars Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, Adelaide Hall and Paul Robeson. The musical opened the door for black performers and writers on the stage during the period in the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The new musical will use the Blake & Sissle music with an original libretto by Wolfe. McDonald will play 1920s star Lottie Gee. The show will represent the first collaboration between Wolfe and tap master Glover since their Tony-winning Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. Glover became a sensation because of that 1996 show, but hasn’t been heard from much since.

Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald Photo by ABC

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The Tonys of London theatre, the Olivier Awards, announced their 2015 nominations this week. A couple imports from Broadway did well: Memphis The Musical and Beautiful - The Carole King Musical lead the nominations, receiving nine and eight nods respectively.

There were also multiple nominations for the London productions of Here Lies Love and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, as well as the Broadway-bound production of Wolf Hall. The nominations were also a reminder that, while the Tonys may be heavily commercialized and cynically exploited by producers, at least they don’t have branded categories like “Mastercard Best New Musical” and “Virgin Atlantic Best New Play.” Then again, maybe the Oliviers have it right. When I think about buying pricy West End tickets, I think about the impact it will have on my credit card.

*** Tallying stuff is fun. So let’s do some counting to commemorate the end of the first national tour of Wicked. Known as the Emerald City Tour, it launched March 8, 2005, in Toronto. It will conclude its record-breaking journey March 15 in Los Angeles 10 years to the week after the tour began.

During its run, the show had 10 Glindas and 14 Elphabas, which seems to indicate that being Elphaba is harder on a gal than playing Glinda. Maybe it’s all that defying gravity. The show collected an impressive $790 million in grosses, which averages out to $79 million a year, and a million and a half a week.

It will have played 4,160 performances, 124 engagements (including return stops in several major U.S. cities). It also broke box-office house records in every single stop it played. Over 200 actors have been employed in the tour over the course of its life, with a few cast members and several production members having been part of the show since its launch.

Wicked’s second national tour continues with no determined end in sight. Hope they don’t run out of Elphabas.

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