PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 21-27: Openings Galore in the Final Week of Broadway's 2011-12 Season!
By Robert Simonson
This week passed without reports that any critics had checked in at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital suffering from physical exhaustion. That was a minor miracle, given that reviewers had to take in, and write up, seven Broadway shows in the space of five days. The Broadway traffic before the Tony Awards cutoff on April 26 was such that two shows were forced to share both April 23 and April 26 as their opening night. Way to leave it to the last minute, guys.
Of course, some of those critics, had they checked in, might have been admitted for acute depression. For those seven shows weren't exactly the pick of the litter of the 2011-12 Broadway season.
The trail of tears began with the multi-ethnic Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, which officially opened April 22 at the Broadhurst Theatre. Emily Mann, an old hand at Williams (she knew Tennessee), directed Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker as Stanley and Blanche in this revival that is produced by Stephen C. Byrd and Alia M. Jones of Front Row Productions, who were also behind the hit all-African-American revival of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway in 2008.
Critics were split. Those who didn't like it thought the production was "an exquisite snooze," an "unfathomable misstep" on the part of Mann, one which featured performers who look good and amped up the sexual energy, but offered "no subtle psychological insights into Blanche, Stanley and Stella."
Of those who did like it (the minority), AP thought is had "an excellent ensemble cast" that "combines under taut directing from Emily Mann to create a fresh way to enjoy an iconic play." And Newsday, who admitted not needing another revival of Streetcar, admitted that they "have put together a solid, credible, more aggressive than poetic" production.
Not exactly stuff to set the box office ablaze. But critics were mixed on Cat, too, and that did gangbuster business, showing there is an African-American theatre audience hungry to see name black actors in classic plays.
Somewhat surprisingly, The Lyons, Nicky Silver's darkly comic dysfunctional-family play — and the playwright's Broadway debut — fetched the best reviews of the week when it opened April 23 at the Cort Theatre.
The play had been hailed as Silver's best in years when it ran Off-Broadway last year. With the Broadway rendition, critics estimated that the work was even better, benefitting from some judicious cuts in the script and an even more towering performance by comic stage master Linda Lavin.
The producers know what the attraction of this play is; Lavin's name is above the title in big letters. Indeed, without Lavin, the reviews would have been much different. As a delightfully (and nonchalantly) monstrous wife and mother, Lavin was termed "an absolute wonder," "in sensational form," and "constantly compelling." She "has a peerless ability to humanize her characters even while exposing their lacerating edges" and is "giving a master class in comic timing."
About the play, critics had more quibbles. When all was said and done, it is "a bit of a mess," said one; and the second act, it was generally agreed, is not up to the standard of the first. But the all-important New York Times basically gave the show a rave. The paper even said "Welcome to Broadway at last, Mr. Silver." (Knowing the facetious mind of Silver, that "Mr." sent him rolling on the floor in disbelieving laughter.)
Ghost The Musical — the London pop musical based on the Academy Award-winning 1990 film about a romance that reaches into the afterlife — opened the same night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. It could have used Linda Lavin.
The show, directed by British golden boy Matthew Warchus, hadn't gotten good notices when it debuted in London (where it nonetheless became a hit), but the producers decided to bring it over the ocean anyway.
Given that history, they couldn't have been that surprised by their reception. The best the Times could do, by way of compliment, was say it "may not be the very worst musical ever made from a movie…But it is just as flavorless and lacking in dramatic vitality as many that have come before." Critics complained the show was too focused on the special effects at the expense of the characters and story; that it was a robotic piece of flashy showbiz mechanics which ignored the intimate sweetness of its source material; "a flavorless hash that is unrelentingly loud, vulgar and stunningly tone-deaf to the ways in which the world has changed since that era of sweet young yuppie innocence." Wrote Bloomberg, "Palpitating with light-emitting diodes that blink, flicker, zip and flash, Ghost is like Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark without the depth."
Compared unfavorably to Spider-Man? Ouch.
Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall has done some excellent work on Broadway with star Kelli O'Hara (The Pajama Game) and with old Broadway material (the still-running hit revival of Anything Goes). And star Matthew Broderick has had success with musicals (something called The Producers). But that track record couldn't transform Nice Work If You Can Get It — which employs classic songs of composer George Gershwin and lyricist Ira Gershwin, and is inspired by their 1926 musical Oh, Kay! — into a solid critical hit.
Certainly there were folks who liked it more than enough. "They've managed to take about 20 songs from the George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin catalog, marry them to the skeleton of the 1926 musical and emerge with a plot that makes madcap sense with songs that feel right for the occasion," wrote AP. And Hollywood Reporter said, "Broderick is winningly paired with the luminous Kelli O'Hara, and the leads are backed by a string of top-notch character turns. Throw in 21 tunes from two of the preeminent practitioners of the American musical and you have a cocktail that should go down easily with Broadway nostalgists."
But others thought the show only captured the fizz and fire of the madcap era fitfully. Of those, quite a few seemed content to blame Broderick, who played a zany playboy. "If only its likable, hard-working leading man — a miscast Matthew Broderick — didn't seem to be painfully concentrating on his next step, all night long," wrote one critic. The Times said, "He sings and dances pleasantly and competently, but rather vaguely, too, as if his thoughts were elsewhere. And when he proclaims that he's possessed by 'fascinating rhythm'…you're inclined to doubt it." Time Out was the most brutal: "Somebody miscast Broderick again."
The Columnist, David Auburn's character study about the complexities and contradictions in the life and work of the powerful, and secretly gay, American political journalist Joseph Alsop, opened April 25 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. With John Lithgow in the lead role, it was arguably the most anticipated premiere of the week. It has been 12 years since Auburn's Proof and critics were curious what the writer had been up to.
Overall, reviewers found the Manhattan Theatre Club-produced work admirable, but too safe and workmanlike in its construction and characterization. "As an old-fashioned architect, he can't be faulted here," wrote the Times. "But he doesn't furnish his rooms so that they feel genuinely lived in." Time Out said, "Rather than an incisive portrait that might connect Alsop's sexuality to his ideological stance, we get a well-scripted history lesson that ticks off JFK's election and assassination, the Vietnam quagmire and Alsop's refusal to accept defeat in Southeast Asia." Chimed in Newsday, "Neither [Lithgow] nor helmer Daniel Sullivan can do the impossible: manufacture a play out of the scattered events of Auburn's well-articulated but loosely structured scenes." However, nearly every critic applauded Sullivan and Lithgow's expert, professional work — particularly Lithgow who, most concurred, was made to play mentally tough and witty, yet emotionally vulnerable, characters such as Alsop.
The Roundabout Theatre Company opened a revival of Marc Camoletti's 1960-set sex farce Don't Dress for Dinner — a sort of sequel to Boeing-Boeing, which was a hit in revival on Broadway four years ago — on April 26 at the American Airlines Theatre. The cast included Ben Daniels, Patricia Kalember, David Aron Damane, Adam James, Jennifer Tilly and Spencer Kayden, under John Tillinger's direction.
Did lightening strike twice for Camoletti, whose reputation was nowhere before Boeing became an unexpected smash? Well, no. The critics knew exactly why there were suddenly seeing another Camoletti farce on Broadway. "You see, if it were not for the alchemical magic of Mr. [Mark] Rylance's Tony-winning performance in Mr. Camoletti’s Boeing-Boeing, revived to popular acclaim on Broadway and in the West End a couple of years ago, I doubt I would have had to endure the creaking mechanics of Don't Dress for Dinner," wrote the New York Times. "Instead of feeling freshly whipped up from a classic recipe — as Boeing-Boeing did, against all odds — this Roundabout Theatre Company production has the stale flavor of an old TV dinner defrosted and microwaved."
Thus ends the Camoletti Spring.
"This time, due to an uneven ensemble, uninspired direction and a too-talky script, the farcical magic never materializes," wrote Time Out. "It's tired, warmed-over farce that involves seltzer spraying, imaginary insects, boob jokes, loads of alcohol, people jumping over sofas, and the cast running around in dressing gowns," observed the AP. "John Tillinger, the director, has made the amateurish mistake of encouraging his actors to troll aggressively for laughs instead of letting the situation generate them," said the Wall Street Journal, in a criticism that was mentioned in several reviews. The only thing critics uniformly liked was actress Spencer Kayden, who hasn't been seen on Broadway since Urinetown. "Please let Spencer Kayden get cast as often as possible," said Newsday.
The week mercifully came to an end with the April 26 opening, at the St. James, of Leap of Faith. The musical, based on a Steve Martin movie, is about a con-man preacher who blows into a depressed, drought-plagued Kansas town. The score is by Alan Menken (who seems to have written half of the new musicals that have opened on Broadway this season) and Glenn Slater.
If producers and theatre owners thought they might get to go home for the weekend with some good news tucked in their pocket, they were wrong. "Leap of Faith is this season's black hole of musical comedy, sucking the energy out of anyone who gets near it," wrote the Times. "This ersatz musical [is], like its cinematic source, a compendium of formulaic characters and clichéd situations all too obviously cribbed from better and more original works," stated Back Stage. "What Leap of Faith lacks is are sweat and heat," said the Wall Street Journal. The creators "are, like Mr. Esparza, content to skate glamorously atop the surface of their characters' feelings." Even Esparza, who is usually praised by critics no matter what play he's in, got poor notices, with most maintaining that his sham preacher was just to unappealing to save.
Whether the stage work is good or bad, you can't stop the award-giving machines from handing out trinkets.
This week, nominations for both the Outer Critics Circle Awards and the Drama Desk Awards were announced.
Nice Work If You Can Get It received nine OCC nominations, the most of any production of the season. The new musicals Newsies and Once each received seven nominations. Among plays, Death of a Salesman and One Man, Two Guvnors did best.
The Drama Desks — which, like the OCC, honor both Broadway and Off-Broadway — liked the Off-Broadway Maury Yeston musical Death Takes a Holiday and the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, giving them 10 nominations apiece. Nice Work If You Can Get It nabbed eight nominations, while the productions of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Leap of Faith, Queen of the Mist and Richard III all earned six nominations apiece.
This year the nominators chose to bestow a special ensemble award for acting to the cast of Sweet and Sad, including Jon DeVries, Shuler Hensley, Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robins, Jay O. Sanders, and J. Smith-Cameron. A special award will also go to character actress Mary Testa.
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