PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 17-23: Elf, A Christmas Story, The Piano Lesson and Rocky the Musical Open

By Robert Simonson
November 23, 2012

You like Christmas? Like Santa? You can't get enough of kids? Lots and lots of tykes, both on stage and in the audience?



Then you loved this week on Broadway. Between Annie, which opened a couple weeks ago, Elf, which returned for its second Times Square visit on Nov. 18, and A Christmas Story, The Musical, which enjoyed its Broadway premiere Nov. 19 at the Lunt Fontanne, after having played various locales around the U.S. for the past couple years, you couldn't swing a sleigh bell without hitting a cute pooch or a fat man in a red suit.

Holiday fare has become big business on Broadway in recent seasons, with shows like Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and White Christmas regularly making visits to, as the New York Times put it, "pick parents' pockets with splashy holiday fare aimed at young audiences." A Christmas Story, based on the beloved 1983 Bob Clark film — based on humorist Jean Shepherd's nostalgic and comedic holiday tale of Midwestern Christmases past — received higher than normal marks from the hardened New York drama critics. In that words of that same broadsheet, it "wins points for being less glitzy and more soft-spoken."

AP called it "a musical that dares to mess with one of the most popular Christmas-time movies of all time and yet manages to not only do the film justice, but top it. The show...is a charming triumph of imagination that director John Rando has infused with utter joy." Hollywood Reporter termed it, "A cut above the pack, it's cute, corny, wholesome and sentimental — all basic requirements for family-friendly seasonal stage entertainment. But it also packs ample heart into its wistful glance back to a time when rewards were simpler, communities were closer-knit, and both parental and filial roles were less polluted by the infinite distractions and anxieties of contemporary life."

Critics admired how the show succeeded "both as an adaptation and on its own terms," as the New York Post put it. "The musical based on the popular 1983 movie is neither candy-cane sweet nor sacred. In fact, not much is sacred in this droll, imaginative, definitely and a bit defiantly off-center tale," reported Newsday.

Not everyone was impressed. Time Out New York lamented that it was "bloated with more schmaltz than a Christmas turkey, the piece ought to be shorter and far more irreverent."

All this praise potentially left Elf — which opened far more quietly, and suffered from being a familiar face, having played Broadway back in 2010 — in the pixie dust. The Post noted that while "the sluggish, saccharine-sweet adaptation of the 2003 Will Ferrell film wasn't bad enough to qualify as a lump of coal...it didn't make you wish for a return ticket in your stocking." But, surprise! The paper added, that this year there had "been a Christmas miracle on Broadway, because the retooled Elf that reopened last night is a startling improvement. Zippier and funnier, the show is now a bona fide treat." And AP enthused, "What might come as a surprise is just how polished these songs and arrangements are, particularly the larger-than-life opening number at Santa's workshop and several scenes in a very strong second act."

Still, the New York Times expressed a sentiment shared by many critics — a thought that doesn't bode well for the reception of future X-mas-themed entertainments — saying, "Holiday cheer is swell, but theatrically, at least, maybe it's starting to be spread a bit thin?"

Rocco Landesman

With the re-election of Barack Obama, a few of the stalwarts of the President's first administration are announcing their exits. One such is New York producer and theatre owner Rocco Landesman, who will step down from his role as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts at the end of 2012, the government agency confirmed Nov. 20.

Landesman, formerly the president of Broadway's Jujamcyn Theaters, was appointed his role as NEA chairman in 2009. He is departing, as planned, after serving one term.

"My intention has always been to serve one term, and we have been able to accomplish more than I had ever thought possible: sparking a national movement around creative placemaking, forging significant relationships with other federal agencies, creating an unprecedented healing arts partnership with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and increasing both the scope and impact of our research office," Landesman said in a statement.

Landesman had been the most high-profile representative from the theatre world to head the agency since actress Jane Alexander held the post during the Clinton years.

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Off-Broadway, director Ruben Santiago-Hudson — who has moved in recent years from being known as an expert August Wilson actor to being recognized as an expert August Wilson stager — opened his Signature Theatre Company mounting of The Piano Lesson.

The production, which has already extended, stars Eric Lenox Abrams, Chuck Cooper, Brandon J. Dirden, Jason Dirden, Alexis Holt, Mandi Masden, Roslyn Ruff and James A. Williams. The critics were unusually moved, filing frankly emotional reviews. "After a traumatic fall that has left half the city in a harried funk…," wrote the New York Times, "The Piano Lesson feels like a generous gift: the stage equivalent of a free Thanksgiving turkey, amply stuffed and surrounded by all the trimmings. This immensely satisfying show, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, an actor who has become an expert interpreter of Wilson's work, brings a timely reminder of how consoling, how restorative, how emotionally sustaining great theatre can be."

Variety, too, was pinching itself. "What have we done to deserve a magnificent revival like the new Signature Theatre production of The Piano Lesson?" it asked. Said Entertainment Weekly, "Santiago-Hudson knows how to assemble a versatile ensemble of actors and musicians: Be it an a cappella spiritual or a piano-fueled boogie-woogie, music is essentially a supporting character in this play — serving at various moments as entertainment, elegy, and even exorcism."

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Once upon a time, Broadway shows worked out their kinks in New Haven, Boston and Philly before heading into big, bad New York. When the Gotham critics started getting too close for comfort, filing reviews from the road, the producers headed further afield, staging shows in Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco. Some even premiered their shows in London to get away from the Broadway gossip mill.

The producers of Rocky the Musical have gone one better. The new show, based on the Sylvester Stallone film, bowed Nov. 18 in Hamburg, Germany.

Drew Sarich, an American actor who has had a busy career performing musicals in Europe (St. Louis-born, Vienna-based), plays iconic underdog boxer Rocky Balboa in the show from the top-drawer American creative team Alex Timbers, Thomas Meehan, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The show, very much a product of the stage world's increasingly international business model, was first written in English, but translated into German for its premiere. The cast is culled from 12 different countries. The producers are Stage Entertainment, filmmaker and original creator/star Stallone and Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko.

The musical is aiming for a Broadway life in 2013, Meehan has said. It will be back in English by then.