PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 19-25: Another Opening... Or Six

By Robert Simonson
April 25, 2014

It's spring on Broadway, and producers are deploying their usual gambit to kill off all critics once and for all by forcing them to attend and review an endless line of show openings. It never quite works (the reviewers only get exhausted and grumpy, and they were all that to begin with), but you can be sure the showmen will try it again next year.



The past week included six openings: two new plays, one revival of a play and three musical revivals. The line-up began with one of the latter, as the Roundabout Theatre Company afforded Violet — the 1997 Jeanine Tesori-Brian Crawley tuner about a southern girl taking a road trip in hopes of repairing her face and her life along with it — its first chance to bask in the Broadway lights. Sunny musical queen Sutton Foster stars in a production directed by Leigh Silverman.

Reviews were mixed to positive. "The moment also seems ripe for Violet, originally produced Off Broadway in 1997, to be acknowledged as an enduringly rewarding musical," wrote the Times. "But the musical concludes on a satisfying but not too sugary note of uplift." USA Today, however, wasn't so sure, saying "Crawley's sensitive dialogue can drag at times — as can Tesori's rootsy score, which veers from country-flavored ballads to R&B and gospel-tinged production numbers. But Silverman and her cast reward our patience with performances that transcend clichés."

All were sold on the charm, artistry and originality of Foster's performance. "Foster throws herself into this unglamorous role, her face pale and her body propelled into a world of no self-confidence," wrote the Chicago Tribune. "It is a very honorable performance, filled with craft. Foster never condescends, and she clearly enjoys her character's intelligence, although she, too, struggles toward the end with the need for climax and consequence." New York Magazine echoed, "Crawley's dialogue is as pungent and musical as his lyrics. And in Sutton Foster he and Tesori have found the ideal star. Foster has never been a vain actress, but here she seems to relish the opportunity to strip away everything inessential."

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Violet was followed by another show with a star playing a character defined by a deformity. Following a sold-out London run, the Michael Grandage production of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, starring Daniel Radcliffe, officially opened on Broadway April 20 at the Cort Theatre. The production marks the Broadway premiere for McDonagh's play, which was previously seen Off-Broadway in 1998 at the Public Theater and in 2008 at the Atlantic Theater.

Many critics took time to voice how much they thought Radcliffe has improved as a stage actor. Most were pleasantly surprised. "Of the three Radcliffe performances I've seen on Broadway, this by far is the best," said the Chicago Tribune. "It really breathes as it hobbles along, and yet it's never showy nor overly optimistic. Radcliffe… reveals chops here I've never seen on stage nor screen." The Times agreed: "Mr. Radcliffe — the boy wizard in the immensely successful Harry Potter movie franchise — is entirely convincing as the boy who is regarded as least likely to succeed at pretty much anything in his God-forsaken rural Irish town."

Daniel Radcliffe
Photo by Johan Persson
As for the production and the play, the majority of reviewers admired it as well. Hollywood Reporter called it a "cracking production, which makes an entertainingly boozy brew of humor both sweet and savage, melancholy sentimentality, lacerating sorrow and wicked cruelty." A dissenting voice came from Time Out New York, which wrote, "six years ago, I actually liked the play. But supersizing it for Broadway, Grandage does the brittle comedy no favors. McDonagh just doesn't have much to say, only romantic conventions to cynically flip over."

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The least ballyhooed of the week's openings, Eric Coble's new family drama The Velocity of Autumn, starring Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella, opened at the Booth Theatre April 21. Molly Smith, who directed the play — about Alexandra, a 79-year-old artist in a violent showdown with her family over where she'll spend her remaining years — at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., also helmed the Broadway production.

In general, the critics liked the performers far more than the play, which they found formulaic and cliched. The main question was whether they thought the performances made the production worthwhile or not. The Times thought they did: "While the conversation occasionally strays into unprofitable byways, the play passes by breezily because Ms. Parsons is such fun to watch." AP agreed, saying, "Both of these pros imbue their characters with genuine poignancy, rueful humor and their own adept timing. Molly Smith's deft direction also creates a sense of urgency during the 90-minute showdown about a seeming no-win situation."

However, many more thought the tedium of the play outweighed the attraction of the actors. The Hollywood Reporter said of Parsons, "the Oscar-winning actress delivers a memorable turn in an otherwise forgettable, schematic play." And Newsday declared, "Even with actors the caliber of Parsons and Spinella, however, this is a once-over-lightly insult to a subject that deserves so much more than a mechanical showcase for gold-standard performers."

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The Broadway premiere of the John Cameron Mitchell-Stephen Trask rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, starring TV star and frequent Tony Awards host Neil Patrick Harris, was arguably the most anticipated opening of the week, owing to the verve and unorthodox un-Broadway vibe of the piece and the likability of its star. It was unveiled on Broadway April 22 at the Belasco Theatre.

Neil Patrick Harris
Photo by Joan Marcus
Critics went nuts for the show and for Harris in it. Nearly every review declared that Harris was now a bonafide Broadway star, or rock star or both. Here's a sampling of the gushing:

New York Times: "Mr. Harris is in full command of who he is and, most excitingly, what he has become with this performance. That's a bona fide Broadway star, the kind who can rule an audience with the blink of a sequined eyelid... And while Mr. Harris may let you see him sweat as he struts, slithers and leaps through this shamelessly enjoyable show, rousingly directed by Michael Mayer, he never makes it feel like heavy lifting."

AP: "It's obvious from the first moments of Hedwig and the Angry Inch that star Neil Patrick Harris is doing something special. And it's not just trying on a new role... Before our eyes, Harris is opening another chapter in his exceptional show business career with this 90-minute show and he simply crushes it, holding nothing back, softening no edges, making no nice."

Hollywood Reporter: "Harris is beyond fabulous, holds nothing back and plays it any way but safe in Michael Mayer's exhilarating production."

Time Out New York: "Transitioning from child star to adult gay icon, sitcom prince and social-media wizard, Neil Patrick Harris always seemed to be a cultural rock star. But in his latest reinvention, it turns out that the actor is, y'know, an actual rock star."

New York Post: "Sometimes you wonder if there's anything Neil Patrick Harris can't do."

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That was a hard act to follow for Casa Valentina, the second production featuring cross-dressers to open in as many days. The new play by Harvey Fierstein, about a 1962 upstate New York colony where heterosexual men dress as women, opened on April 23 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Joe Mantello directed an estimable group of thespians, including Patrick Page, John Cullum, Reed Birney, Lisa Emery and Larry Pine.

Michelle Williams
Photo by Joan Marcus
The notices, which were gentle and respectful in tone (everyone likes Harvey), said the script was rewarding in part, but failed to ultimately follow through.

"Fierstein vividly captures a group of these brave pioneers with their girdles on, and a trim ensemble helmed by Joe Mantello lends them character," said Variety. "But the plot is messy, the action static, and attempts to probe the psychosexual dynamic of transvestism are tentative and superficial."

"Joe Mantello's impeccable production and a cast of outstanding actors make this an engrossing portrait of a marginalized group, but the strong set-up isn't matched by focused follow-through," opined Hollywood Reporter, which thought the play was "a workshop or two away from being fully realized." The Times agreed, saying, "The air often feels filled with the dry dust of chalk erasers being batted together by a painstakingly instructive schoolteacher. This is a shame. For its first half-hour or so, when Casa Valentina is more show than tell, it promises to be Mr. Fierstein's most engagingly insightful play to date."

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The week of openings ending with the production that, everyone knew, contained the fewest surprises: Cabaret. The same Cabaret — save a few new performers — that graced Studio 54 from 1998 to 2004. The Roundabout Theatre Company brought back the entire crew, including star Alan Cumming, directors Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall and the whole design team. It opened April 24 at — where else? — Studio 54.

Critics didn't seem to mind revisiting the project much. As Hollywood Reporter said, "there's simply no wrong time to revisit Sam Mendes' and Rob Marshall's thrilling production." The main question was whether they liked the new Sally Bowles, played by Michelle Williams. AP did, saying "she does an excellent job, playing both scared and daffy superbly and singing with real heart." The Times liked her less, writing that Williams "doesn't look all that happy to be there. I'm assuming that's more a matter of character interpretation than of personal discomfort, but it does put sort of a damper on the festivities." Daily News fell in the middle: "Though Michelle Williams is credible but not memorable in her Broadway debut as songstress Sally Bowles, her performance can't mar the Roundabout's redo (re-revival?)."

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Finally, James Earl Jones, who is 83, appears to be tireless.

The grand old actor will return to Broadway yet again this August in a revival of the Kaufman and Hart comedy You Can't Take It With You. Jones took a near two-decade break from Broadway after winning a Tony Award for Fences in 1987. But in the past decade, he's done four Broadway shows: On Golden Pond, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Driving Miss Daisy and The Best Man.

Scott Ellis will helm the production. Previews begin Sept. 28 at a Shubert Theatre to be announced.