PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 7-13: Who Loves Ya, Porgy?, Newsies Gets Its Man, Clear Day Closing, Leap Coming

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13 Jan 2012

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis
Photo by Michael J. Lutch

No opening this Broadway season, surely, has been placed under the microscope the way The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess has. Ever since composer Stephen Sondheim took a lengthy swipe, in the pages of the New York Times, at director Diane Paulus and new bookwriters Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray's highly revised reinterpretation of the folk opera, the show has been the subject of both Broadway gossip and serious critical analysis, addressing such subjects as the role of author estates in preserving the authenticity and identity of artists' work, and the liberties that ought to be granted directors and adaptors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, reviews of the show, which opened on Jan. 12 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, fell on both sides of the argument. The Hollywood Reporter, enthused, declared, "The Bottom Line. Boldly reinterpreted and performed with spectacular feeling, this revival brings an American masterwork back to blazing dramatic life." Variety, however, said, "This new Broadway version is a re-envisioned and streamlined version of the 1935 folk opera with smudgy fingerprints affixed; McDonald and Lewis make it reasonably entertaining, but this 'Porgy Lite' is not nearly as electrifying as the real thing." And Bloomberg News condemned the rendition as "arrogantly trimming, reshuffling and 'clarifying' what George and Ira Gershwin and the barely credited DuBose and Dorothy Heyward created, Paulus has so truncated the show that it plays like a soap opera. There’s little room for breathing. Only Bess — thanks to McDonald — comes wholly to life. She and Lewis make Porgy and Bess a must-see, its flaws notwithstanding."

The praise of McDonald was a recurring theme. The New York Times had plenty of reservations about the production, but said, "McDonald’s Bess is — in a word — great; the show in which she appears is, at best, just pretty good." Entertainment Weekly echoed, "The show proves an especially winning vehicle for leading lady Audra McDonald. Where her dramatic soprano has seemed a little heavy or stiff in other musical-theatre roles, she invests Bess' songs with both technical authority and a fluid, full-bodied sense of character that extends to her spoken lines. Tracing the drug-addled Bess' attempt to turn her life around under Porgy's loving guidance, McDonald is by turns tender and crass, droll and desperate, and always wrenchingly human." But EW also said, "As Porgy, the less-celebrated Norm Lewis is a revelation."

The AP, perhaps, had the best advice by which potential theatregoers might navigate the production. "Purists upset to hear about this artistic travesty — good grief, no goat cart?! — should leave the theatre immediately. The rest of us can then sit back and enjoy a first-rate cast give life to one of America's greatest love triangles and hear beautiful songs such as 'Summertime' and 'Bess, You Is My Woman Now.'"

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Raúl Esparza in the developmental world premiere of Leap of Faith in Los Angeles in 2010.
photo by Craig Schwartz



The producers of Leap of Faith are taking a leap of faith. (Yeah, I know that's probably the headline every other theatre reporter in town is using. So sue me.)

The musical, based on the Steve Martin film about a con man, has been in the works since, as one columnist put it, "the Jews left Egypt." But now the Alan Menken musical is suddenly a Broadway reality. Minutes after it became official that the producers of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever were pulling the plug on the long-suffering "revisal" come Jan. 29, Leap of Faith was on the St. James Theatre like a faith healer on a collection box.

The show, starring Raul Esparza, will begin performances April 3. A late-April opening date will be announced. 

Leap of Faith's arrival means that Menken, composer of the Disney comer Newsies and the stubbornly successful Sister Act will have three shows playing simultaneously on Broadway.

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William Shatner is returning to the Broadway stage for the first time in 50 years, but on his own terms, as the title of his solo show makes clear: Shatner's World: We Just Live in It.

There's something to that. On paper, the Emmy-winning actor is best known for his work on TV's "Star Trek" and "Boston Legal." But, in truth, he functions in our society less as an actor than as a bizarre icon of meta-fame whose career has long operated according to its own rules.

Shatner will begin sucking up oxygen at the Music Box Theatre on Feb. 14 and stay until March 4 with an official opening scheduled for Feb. 16. The two-hour show, according to press notes, will "take audiences on a voyage through Shatner's life and career, from Shakespearean stage actor to internationally known icon and raconteur, known as much for his unique persona as for his expansive body of work on television and film." Yup.

The Broadway engagement will kick off a 15-week national tour. As of press time, all the stops will be limited to this dimension and the Planet Earth.

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Jeremy Jordan

Extra! Extra! The producers of Newsies have their star back.

Due to the recent closing of Bonnie & Clyde, Jeremy Jordan, who created the role of rebellious newsboy leader Jack Kelly in Newsies last fall at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse — and got plenty of good notices — will be able to recreate his work when the show arrives at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre on March 15 for a strictly limited 101-performance engagement through June 10.

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Tony winner Victoria Clark will replace Tony winner Bernadette Peters as Sally Durant Plummer when Broadway's hit production of Follies plays Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre May 3-June 9.

Peters will not transfer with the musical in order to fulfill her concert engagements, which she had previously postponed in order to play the Broadway run of Follies. Los Angeles audiences, however, will get to see the performances of four-time Jan Maxwell as Phyllis Rogers Stone, Danny Burstein as Buddy Plummer and Ron Raines as Benjamin Stone.

 

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Jane Alexander, playing the title character in Edward Albee's The Lady From Dubuque at Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre this spring, will be in the company of Catherine Curtin, Michael Hayden, Peter Francis James, Tricia Paoluccio, Laila Robins, Thomas Jay Ryan and C.J. Wilson.

David Esbjornson directs the production, to play Feb. 14-March 25 as the inaugural production in The End Stage Theatre at the resident company's new Frank Gehry-designed home Signature Center at 480 W. 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenues.