PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 16-22: Critics Respond to Hands on a Hardbody and Breakfast at Tiffany's
By Robert Simonson
You hear that? That rumbling in the distance? Feel that vibration under your feet? That's the Tony train coming! There's no stopping it, so don't try. Just brace yourself for its arrival. The cut-off date for Tony consideration is April 25, and until then, producers will be attaching as many cars to that locomotive as the traffic will allow. Two Broadway openings a week? Three? Four? You'll see it. Get ready.
This week was a two-show deal. Both the new stage adaptation of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's and the strangely titled new musical Hands on a Hardbody opened.
"Holly Golightly does not. Go lightly, that is," read the opening of the New York Times review of the former. The proposition of this becoming a critical hit was always a long shot, from the day it was dreamt up. The reputation of Capote's gossamer novella of an ethereal, mysterious good-time girl in 1940s New York — or, more correctly, the beloved 1961 Blake Edwards film starring Audrey Hepburn — is so solid, that is was always doubtful that the production by playwright Richard Greenberg and director Sean Mathias would meet the high expectations of critics and fans. It was even more doubtful that their choice to play Holly, Emilia Clarke, would pass muster as literature's most fascinating gamine. After all, the stage has already struck out twice with this material: once with a would-be David Merrick-produced musical in the 1960s; and more recently with a different adaptation again directed by Mathias, in London a few years ago.
The critics commended Greenberg's script for being more faithful to the book than the film was, but otherwise said the play was flat-footed. "The many scenes stubbornly refuse to add up to much and it remains as flat as Golightly is supposed to be effervescent," wrote the AP. "Greenberg's entire first act is a slog," said Entertainment Weekly, "bogged down with dreary exposition and the introduction of far too many quirky but uninteresting characters...There are too many scenes that just sit there, failing to delight and robbing the play of any semblance of narrative momentum."
Wrote Time Out: "Here is a story that…relies on the restive charm of its central figure: Holly Golightly, a beauteous young courtesan in 1940s New York, who conceals her hillbilly roots beneath a blithe, insouciant manner and a cultivated voice flecked with faux French. 'She isn't a phony because she's a real phony,' as someone explains to the writer who lives next door to her. 'She believes all this crap she believes.' In the Broadway version, she never seems to believe it for a moment; Breakfast at Tiffany's is phony through and through."
And, of course, there were lots of punning jabs about the show not being up to Tiffany's levels. "More like Breakfast at Woolworth's" quipped New York magazine.
Hands on a Hardbody is as curious a creature as you'll find on Broadway this spring. Inspired by true events and based on the acclaimed 1997 documentary of the same name about a bunch of Texas people who try to win a new hardbody pickup truck by keeping one hand on it the longest, it brings together the oddball creative team of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), Broadway lyricist Amanda Green and composer Trey Anastasio, front man of the forever touring, forever jamming, beloved-of-Deadheads rock band Phish.
Critics found the show appealingly small-scaled, human and likable, if modest to a fault.
"Although it's far from fully loaded in a conventional sense," said the Times, "this scrappy, sincere new musical brings a fresh, handmade feeling to Broadway, which mostly traffics in the machine tooled. Burrowing into the troubled hearts of its characters, it draws a clear-eyed portrait of an America that's a far cry from the fantasyland of most commercial musicals. Hands on a Hardbody simply sings forth a story of endurance, hardship and the dimming American dream, which increasingly seems to hover on the distant horizon like some last-ditch motel whose neon lights are blinking out one by one."
"A seemingly far-fetched stage show," wrote the AP, saying what everybody was thinking. But, "by the end of the show, you'll swear that truck can dance. You might, too. Anastasio and Green have written a soundtrack of mostly fine songs in a nice mix of styles — blues, gospel, country and honky-tonk — that will fire you right up. Playwright Doug Wright has had some fun himself, the cast is committed and realistic, and the whole thing is a pleasing, tuneful, heart-filled ode to small towns and American dreams."
"Broadway has been sorely in need of a new musical that touches the heart without insulting the intelligence," declared the Wall Street Journal. "Now it's got one."
While praise was general, it only went up to a point. Wrote the Daily News, expressing a common sentiment, "Loaded with a cabful of fine performers, this song-laced lament about surviving hard times offers a decent ride. So much so, you wish it were better, tighter and carried a more affecting payoff. As is, it's a bit of a missed opportunity."
As for shows that have already opened on Broadway, the Tony Awards Administration Committee assembled March 21 to give them some answers.
The two productions discussed were Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. The big news was that Cinderella, despite its brand new book by Douglas Carter Beane, will be considered eligible in the category of Best Revival of a Musical.
Want to get your play on Broadway? There are many ways to achieve this goal. But here's a formula that's worth a try if you can swing it: be famous before you write the play; elect to star in your own work; and, finally, convince Vanessa Redgrave to co-star.
The Rattlestick Playwrights Theater Off-Broadway world premiere of Jesse Eisenberg's The Revisionist, which received mixed reviews when it opened Feb. 28, has not only extended its run until April 27, but has a chance of jumping to Broadway.
The New York Times reported that Rattlestick artistic director David Van Asselt has been in early discussions with producers to transfer the intimate production to Broadway depending on the availability of its two name stars and a suitable Broadway venue. If it happened, it would be the first Broadway transfer for the long-standing Rattlestick.
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