PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 24-30: Newsies Crowned King of New York, Lortel Nominees Announced

By Robert Simonson
30 Mar 2012

Jeremy Jordan and company
Jeremy Jordan and company
Photo by Deen van Meer

The theatrical arm of Disney woke up March 30 to something sunnier than a princess who gets her prince: good reviews.

The critics loved Newsies, which officially opened on Broadway March 29 at the Nederlander Theatre. The Nederlander sits on 41st Street, in the shadow of the Disney-owned New Amsterdam Theatre — once home to The Lion King, which opened in 1998 and was the last show produced by Disney to do as well by the critics as Newsies has. (Mary Poppins got respectable reviews and continues at the New Amsterdam.)

Variety pointed out as much: "The hallmarks of Disney on Broadway — lavishly expensive sets and costumes, state-of-the art automation and writers seemingly under the direction of some marketing wizard from Burbank — are thoroughly and gratifyingly absent in Newsies, the corker of a family musical from the Mouse House. Sparked by a star-making performance from Jeremy Jordan, a tunefully friendly score from Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, and high-leaping choreography by Christopher Gattelli, Newsies is Disney's happiest outing since The Lion King." The Hollywood Reported agreed, calling it "one of Disney Theatrical's most entertaining new properties in years."

Those critics who didn't necessarily love everything about the show — who thought the story, about triumphant striking newsboys from the 1890s, syrupy, and the songs banal — were nevertheless worn down by the show's sheer entertainment assault. The tunes' similarity to one another, noted the New York Times, "doesn’t stop them from burning energy like toddlers on a sugar high at a birthday party…they keep coming at us in full-speed-ahead phalanxes, fortified by every step in a Broadway-by-the-numbers dance book." Newsday said "What the show…lacks in originality is disguised — if not quite hidden — by a big, talented cast of actors (and several actresses)." "The Newsies," echoed Bloomberg News, "are inexhaustible."



But the run isn't. The break-out hit is currently a limited run. It was to stop on June 10, but was recently extended to Aug. 19. What? Does Disney have other new hit shows that require the company's immediate attention? Are producers banging down the door to rent the Nederlander? Look for the limited run to get less limited real soon.

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Off-Broadway, the spunky, navel-gazing group that gave you the meta-musical with idiosyncratic punctuation [title of show] — Hunter Bell, Michael Berresse, Susan Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jeff Bowen and Larry Pressgrove — are back with a new meta-musical with idiosyncratic punctuation, called Now. Here. This. The new work opened March 28 at the Vineyard Theatre. The highly personal revue, which dives head first into the lives of the players and asks what it means to be present in your own life, was recently extended to April 22.

Were critics charmed or repelled by this piece of stage narcissism? Well, the New York Times liked "the performers’ winning personas, Mr. Bowen’s frisky songs and the generous doses of off-kilter humor in the book by Mr. Bell and Ms. Blackwell," and said those pluses "help you to overlook the familiarity of the various rites of passage they enact." Indeed, a few reviews said you basically have to like the clique on stage in order to like the show. Wrote one critic, "Fans of [title of show] — and I am one of them — certainly will want to see what these crazy, talented kids are up to on their latest endeavor." He then went on to give thumbnail sketches of the four leads, as if they were the Monkees or something: "goofy Hunter, finicky Jeff, sardonic Susan and forthright Heidi."

Others, however, were not avowed fans of this particular cult of personality. "At the end of the day, how many jokes do we want to hear about Hunter Bell's trouble finding a boyfriend?" asked Variety "Although Now. Here. This. is not aimless, it does leave you with a nagging feeling of 'Should. We. Care.'" Said the Post: the show "too often grates where its predecessor charmed. ... As so often happens when friends start reminiscing, the memories are meaningful mostly to them."

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Award season is upon us. In case we had forgotten about this, the Lucille Lortel Awards reminded us by announcing their 2012 nominations on March 29.

The acclaimed Off-Broadway productions of the drama Tribes and the new musical Once lead the nominations. Special awards this year will go to producer Richard Frankel, for Lifetime Achievement; and playwright-director Richard Foreman, who will be given a plaque on the sidewalk outside the Lortel Theatre.

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The producers on Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities are having more trouble keeping a family together than the Wyeths, the dysfunctional clan depicted in the drama.

The acclaimed drama opened on Broadway in Nov. 3 with Stacy Keach, Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths, Judith Light and Thomas Sadoski. Before you knew it, Matthew Risch was stepping in during Sadoski's December absence, so the latter could film an Aaron Sorkin pilot. Then Sadoski left altogether in January and Justin Kirk began playing the part of Trip Wyeth. By early March, Griffiths was gone, and Elizabeth Marvel had taken on her role as Brooke Wyeth. And Lauren Klein stepped in as Polly Wyeth as Channing went on hiatus. Matthew Risch returned to succeed Kirk on March 27 at the Booth Theatre.

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Finally, Love, Loss, and What I Wore, Nora and Delia Ephron's long-running Off-Broadway production that features a rotating cast of notable women, ended its run March 25 at the Westside Theatre. Upon closing, the production played 1,013 performances.

The Westside has a sort of knack for long-running shows that have rotating casts and a, shall we say, feminine slant. This, after all, was the home of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, which ran from 1999 to 2003 and starred every actress under the sun at one point or another. A few actresses, in fact — Joyce Van Patten, Mary Testa, Loretta Swit — ot short-time work in both Love and Monologues.