Saturday, August 25, 2018

On, Under, Along The Sea - Two Fables

Just a few blocks from one another on Broadway, two musicals are doing boffo box office business this summer.
One is a revival, the other is a newcomer. One is irrepressibly silly and the other is poignant.
But both shows are tuneful fables, both use innovative staging to get their point across, both involve real or impending natural disasters, both feature multi-cultural casts and both tell tales about life along, on or under the sea.
No, we're not talking about The Little Mermaid or Mutiny on the Bounty.
We're talking about the Tony award-winning Best Musical revival and the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle award-winning Best Musical.

The revival, Once On This Island is a one-act musical with a book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. Based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy, it is set on a French island in the Caribbean Sea. The show includes elements of the Romeo and Juliet story and elements of a fairy tale. It concerns a peasant girl on a tropical island who uses the power of love to bring together people of different social classes. The original Broadway production opened in 1990 and ran for 488 performances.
The new production at the Circle in the Square Theater opened last December and features a gritty in-the-round staging, a sandy surface, real water elements, a live goat, suggestions of voodoo and a decidedly pared-down version of the tropics. This is the island life that you don't see when you stay at once of those fancy Caribbean resorts or visit while on a luxury cruise. In fact, the set is so rusty and grainy and rag-tagged that you might think you ventured into the wrong show. And the story sort of unfolds all around you.
One stormy night on the island, thunder booms, making a small girl cry in fear. To comfort her, the village storytellers tell her the story of Ti Moune, a peasant girl who falls in love with a grand homme, Daniel Beauxhomme Рa story of life, pain, love, grief, faith, and hope. In this story, four gods (consisting of Asaka: Mother of the Earth, Agwé: god of Water, Erzulie: goddess of Love, and Papa Ge: demon of Death) rule an island known as the Jewel of the Antilles where poor peasants worship them (Prologue/"We Dance"). The peasants, "black as night", live on one side of the island, and the grands hommes, lighter-skinned descendants of the original French planters and their slaves, live on the other. One day, Agwe unleashes a terrible storm upon the island, which in turn causes a disastrous flood, wiping out many villages. However, the gods save the life of a little orphan named Ti Moune by placing her in a tree above the flood's waves. She is found and subsequently adopted by the peasants Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian ("One Small Girl").
There's lots more to the story but from this you can get the general idea. Conflict and understanding between and across races, religions and socio-economic classes play a strong role in the narrative. Among the hauntingly beautiful numbers in the show are One Small Girl, Ti Moune, Forever Yours and  Why We Tell The Story. And the cast is uniformly excellent, especially Phillip Boykin and Kenita R. Miller as Ti Moune's adopted parents, Isaac Powell as Daniel and Loren Lott as Ti Moune.
But this show is, above all, an acquired taste. 
And we have to admit that we are not great fans of theater in-the-round. So much is happening at so many different places and with so much sound bouncing here and there, that the whole thing can be difficult to follow. And while it carries a powerful message of hope, this is not a cheerful show. Still, it has its following and is enjoying a healthy run.

By contrast, SpongeBob Square Pants, the new musical is a sheer, irrepressible, giddy delight. And, it's turned the legendary Palace Theater into a happy, dazzling, deliriously crowd-pleasing neon funhouse. Indeed, the show aptly bills itself as "the Broadway musical for everyone" and that could not be more true just as long as still retain at least an ounce of youthful frivolousness. 
The staging of this show is like nothing we've ever seen before and the whole thing works like a finely-tuned piece of machinery. And yet, it unfolds in such a seemingly spontaneous manner that it envelops you in cheerfulness. 
Director Tina Landau, whose distinct style and unconventional use of performance spaces are a trademark of her ambitious, ensemble-driven works, is really the driving force behind SpongeBob on Broadway and her hand shows in every element of the production. 
Ethan Slater gives one of the best performances ever as SpongeBob and he has deservedly garnered Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk and Theater World awards. His portrayal is so consistently appealing that it's nothing less than breathtaking. As Squidward, Gavin Lee gives us a classic Broadway sendup in the tradition of Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde. His big ten o'clock number, I'm Not A Loser, positively stops the show. As Patrick, Danny Skinner is a pure delight and he also has his moment in Super Star Sea Savior. And Wesley Taylor is so fiendishly menacing as Plankton that he becomes the culprit you love to hate. But in truth, this is an extraordinary cast throughout -- a huge group of more than 27 with a majority of the actors playing more than one role. And then there's the 19-piece band and so many wondrous special effects and gizmos that the whole thing is nothing less than an ongoing treat for the eyes and ears.
This is a $20 million show with top-notch production values and music by Sara Bareilles, Steven Tyler, Lady Antebellum, John Legend, David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, The Flaming Lips, They Might Be Giants and Panic! at the Disco, so you're bound to walk out humming the tunes. 
Oh, about the story -- well, it really doesn't matter, but here goes: It's all about the Best Day Ever gone wrong, and then in the course of the show, it's all righted again just in the nick of time, and we do mean with literally seconds to spare. You see, life on Bikini Bottom is threatened by a volcanic eruption. Of course, Sponge Bob is absolutely certain that he can save the day even though he has no idea how to go about it. And Patrick is ever ready to help Sponge Bob but he's clueless as well, and lazy. Then there's Plankton who delights in disaster and seeks to benefit from it all and Squidward, who just wants to be a star. Yes, there are various other characters as well, including a shifty mayor and a group of cultish  sardines. And the costumes for all of these under-the-sea creatures will blow you away. The show's got so much dayglow that you'll need a visor.
But don't think this is all fun 'n games. If you pay attention, there's ample social commentary here, a dash of satire and helpful lessons to be learned. 
Sponge Bob must close on September 16 to make way for construction at the Palace Theater but it will launch a national tour next fall. Still, we urge you to see the original Broadway production and take the whole family. You won't be disappointed!
Postscript: We knew nothing about Sponge Bob before we saw the show. We only knew that it was a TV cartoon show. We were somewhat familiar with the principal character but that was it. It didn't matter. In fact, it was almost better this way. We're instant fans. We love the show!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Oh, You CAN Quibble With It, However . .

Tale as old as time . . . 
Well, no -- we're not talking about Beauty and the Beast. No quite, anyway.
But we are talking about a story of transformation -- one that does involve a mismatched pair. But this is a story with an ending that is neither happily-ever-after nor obviously definitive.
Still, it is an old an enduring tale -- one that has its roots in Greek mythology.
It's George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, the story of that endlessly captivating pair, Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins. She, the common, oafish, poorly-educated mangler of the English language and he, the erudite, sophisticated, condescending defender of the Mother Tongue.
When composer Frederick (Fritz) Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner set out to turn Shaw's play into a Broadway musical, they found themselves facing a puzzle they almost could not solve. How do you convert such a loquacious piece of theater into a pop operetta? They wrestled with this dilemma for a very long time. And then Lerner (who also wrote the libretto for the show) got out of the weeds and discovered a solution that was right in front of them: wherever possible, turn Shaw's words into songs and integrate them seamlessly into the story.
The result is My Fair Lady, one of the most endlessly chatty and enormously successful musicals in Broadway history -- so successful, in fact, that it's been called Broadway's "most beloved musical".
But for all of its appeal, My Fair Lady doesn't deliver a classic Broadway sound. To begin with, it remains veddy British. And, the music veers between an English music hall sound and the mannered patter of a proper drawing room. It's sort of a mash up of Lionel Bart, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Anthony Newly with a bit of Noel Coward thrown in. Yet, it remains distinctly its own property.
From the bombastic I'm Getting Married in the Morning to the lush I Could Have Danced All Night; from the rigid and repetitive Rain in Spain to the rapturous On The Street Where You Live, My Fair Lady covers all the bases and in the process plays on both our sensibilities and our heartstrings.

In its new Broadway production at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, this captivating musical gets a full, glorious treatment with a cast of 37 and an orchestra almost as large. Under the able direction of Bartlett Sher, the entire production moves along like a well-oiled and very precise British timepiece.
What we're treated to is a bit more adept Eliza in Lauren Ambrose (she's certainly got her wits about her) and a younger, perhaps less brittle Higgins in Harry Haddon-Patton. To be sure, they're quite a match and they do go at one another along a choppy road dotted with malapropisms, brickbats and an ample dose of verbal daggers. Of course, it's still hard not to think of Rex Harrison (we saw a revival with Harrison years ago) and Julie Andrews in the lead roles. But this is an updated edition with an Eliza who's more of a peppered redhead and a Higgins who is lithe and stylishly handsome.
And, the supporting cast is so adroit that the big show stoppers like I'm Getting Married are not only intact but they're actually better and more energetic than we remember them. Here, the credit must go to  Christopher Gatelli's fine choreography and the standout performance of Norbert Leo Butz as Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle. Butz is an absolute Broadway treasure -- a performer who radiates such energy and who so completely inhabits a role that he takes your breath away. The joy that he takes in his performance is palpable and it is a highlight of the show. And what a special treat it is to see Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins, the wise an imperious materfamilias who still holds sway over her smug and irascible son. Rigg doesn't overplay the role but rather sets just the right tone. And Michael Yeargan's design of Higgin's stately abode is simply a three-dimensional treasure.
Do we have any quibbles with this grand production? Well, yes. Jordan Donica as Freddy is a bit too giddy and somewhat too operatic in his deliver of On The Street Where You Live. It's all up here when it should be more nuanced. The song needs to be acted rather than belted. And Allan Corduner is a tad too fey as Colonel Pickering. On top of all that, Catherine Zuber's costumes are not terribly memorable. But than again, who could possibly top Cecil Beaton?
To be sure, these are minor objections since, overall this is as fine a production as you are likely to currently see.

And now comes the spoiler alert: We all know that the final scene of My Fair Lady can be wonderfully touching and romantic for some (Eliza returns!) or maddeningly inconclusive for others (well, does she really?). In this production, no dialogue has been changed but there is an alteration in the staging of the final scene. We won't give the ending away completely but we will tell you this: we didn't like it! You, on the other hand, may have a completely different reaction.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

RAPTUROUS! This Is One For The Ages!

Justin Peck received the 2018 Tony Award for his choreography of Carousel. Here's why!

The story is told of an impressionable young teenage music student who sat enthralled at the opening night performance of a new musical at the Majestic Theater on Broadway in 1945. At one point, he looked across the aisle at a friend who was seated nearby and they both had tears in their eyes.
The student was Stephen Sondheim, then mentored by Oscar Hammerstein. The friend was Mary Rodgers, the daughter of Richard Rodgers. And the show was Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, now considered a seminal work of the American musical theater.
Anyone who's ever witnessed a credible performance of Carousel knows why Sondheim and Rodgers and millions of others have been moved to tears. This story of carnival barker Billy Bigelow and mill worker Julie Jordan is so filled with yearning, struggle, passion and desire that it can't help but tug at your heart. From the moment the lead characters sing the haunting If I Loved You, you know they are star-crossed and you also know that there is nothing you can do to help them. As a later balled reminds you: What's The Use of Wond'rin? The troubled tale of Billy and Julie will have to unfold and ultimately reach its fated conclusion.
Carousel has been called a story of young love, a parable and a tale of redemption. But at its core this is a show about the American Dream -- the dream of a better, simpler, happier, more fulfilling life. That's really what every character in the show (set at the dawn of the twentieth century) seeks. And this dream is expressed in its most intense form within the story of Julie and Billy. Remember: this was an era of big, new, audacious dreams. And these dreams even touched the residents of a small fishing village in New England.
Broadway's newest production of Carousel (now at the Imperial Theater) is the first full-scale mounting of this landmark musical on the Great White Way since 1994. And this rendering of Carousel is grand and glorious in every imaginable way.
With a cast of 40 and a 28-piece orchestra this is a richly rewarding production that remains true to the original but also allows us to think about the topics and issues that Carousel raises in up-to-the-minute terms. And, along the way, the show loses none of its intimacy, none of its sweet moments, none of its heartfelt sentimentality.
Much of the credit for all this must go to the director (Jack O'Brien), the choreographer (Justin Peck) and the outstanding cast. The one bow to modern sensibilities is the casting of an African-American (Joshua Henry) in the role of Billy Bigelow. Inasmuch as Rodgers and Hammerstein's shows are all about tolerance and understanding (South Pacific itself featured interracial love stories) this would seem to be a natural progression.
Lindsay Mendez won the 2018 Tony Award for her portrayal of the irrepressible Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel and she is astonishing. She reminds us of a young Ethel Merman. And Mendez is paired with the appealing Alexander Gemignani as Enoch Snow. When the two of them duet in When The Children Are Asleep, it's one of the sweetest moments in all of musical theater.
To hear Joshua Henry perform the Soliloquy (My Boy Bill) is to experience this full-throated marathon as you've never heard it before. It's truly acted in song and is so beautifully nuanced and well-paced that it takes your breath away. When the Metropolitan's Opera's RenéeFleming sings You'll Never Walk Alone, you're sure to put "hope in your heart" once again. And Jessie Mueller is perfectly cast as Julie Jordan. What's more, Margaret Colin is both menacing and comedic as Mrs. Mullin, Amar Ramsar literally and figuratively takes flight as Jigger Craig and John Douglas Thompson is full of gravitas as The Starkeeper.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's music is so robust, rich and melodic that it makes you wish that every Broadway musical could sound like this. Bravo to Jonathan Tunick for his orchestrations in this his 111th production and 50th year  in the business. And the dancing! OMG! The movements tell the story with zest one minute and glorious ballet moves the next.
The opening of Carousel is a joy unto itself. Technically, the show has no overture because Richard Rodgers tired of having his music compete with the audience's tardy arrivals and chattering. So, instead, we get the lushly memorable Carousel Waltz, described as follows by author Ethan Mordden:
Other characters catch our notice—Mr. Bascombe, the pompous mill owner, Mrs. Mullin, the widow who runs the carousel and, apparently, Billy; a dancing bear; an acrobat. But what draws us in is the intensity with which Julie regards Billy—the way she stands frozen, staring at him, while everyone else at the fair is swaying to the rhythm of Billy's spiel. And as Julie and Billy ride together on the swirling carousel, and the stage picture surges with the excitement of the crowd, and the orchestra storms to a climax,  . . . we realize that R & H have not only skipped the overture and the opening number but the exposition as well. They have plunged into the story, right into the middle of it, in the most intense first scene any musical ever had . . . 
Yes, Carousel is a true original. And now it's also a classic American pop opera. It is beautiful to watch, thrilling to experience and ravishing in every sense of the word.
Don't miss it!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Here's Who Will Win The Tony Awards Tonight!

Here are the odds-on favorites to win this year's Tony Awards tonight.
NOTE: Our correct picks are shown in green. We scored a 76% accuracy rate.

Best Musical
The Band's Visit

Best Play
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Best Musical Revival
My Fair Lady

Best Play Revival
Angels in America

Best Actress (musical)
Katrina Lenk, The Ban's Visit

Best Actor (musical)
Joshua Henry, Carousel

Best Actress (play)
Glenda Jackson, Three Tall Women

Best Actor (play)
Andrew Garfield, Angels in America

Best Featured Actress (musical)
Lindsay Mendez, Carousel

Best Featured Actor (musical)
Norbert Leo Butz, My Fair Lady

Best Featured Actress (play)
Denise Gough, Angels in America

Best Featured Actor (play)
Nathan Lane, Angels in America

Best Director (musical)
The Band's Visit

Best Director (play)
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Best Musical Score
The Band's Visit

Best Musical Book
Mean Girls

Best Orchestration
The Band's Visit

Best Choreography

Scenic Design (play)
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Scenic Design (musical)
My Fair Lady

Costume Design (play)
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Costume Design (musical)
My Fair Lady

Lighting Design (play)
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Lighting Design (musical)
Sponge Bob Square Pants

Sound Design (play)
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Sound Design (musical)
Sponge Bob Square Pants