Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Gleeful, Glorious, Giddy, Unforgettable Romp!

The story of Dolly Gallagher Levi takes place at the turn of the turn of the century in 1890s New York. But its origins date all the way back to an Austrian play written in 1835 which eventually morphed into the 1938 Thornton Wilder play, The Matchmaker and then later the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly!
The emergence of Dolly is a story in itself inasmuch as Dolly was only a minor character in the 1835 play. It was Thornton Wilder who moved the story to New York and eventually built the whole play around Dolly.
And therein lies the magic of this perennial favorite.
Because Dolly herself is timeless. The heart and soul of this inimitable character is also ageless and universal.
When she accepted the 2017 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, Bette Midler reminded her colleagues that Broadway's current production of Hello, Dolly! is most assuredly not a revival. "A revival is for someone who is dead or dying," Midler said. "But Dolly never died. She's always been here. She's always been with us and her story is for everyone."
Nobody understands this better than Midler herself and her astounding turn as Dolly at Broadway's Shubert Theater is not only the singular most joyous, most irresistible, most incandescent performance on the Great White Way right now, it's also the best performance we've ever seen, period.
The secret here (if there is one) is that Midler doesn't give us a campy Dolly or a caricatured Dolly or a smirk-and-chuckle Dolly but a real, honest-to-goodness, fully-formed, three dimensional Dolly who laps up life like a rich turkey dinner and inspires others to do the same.
Dolly understands the human condition and that understanding helps her turn events her way. But when she "puts her hand in" matters (as she explains in) she does it not as a cynical manipulator but as a self-appointed benefactor who wants to see people get as much enjoyment as they can out of every moment. And thanks to Bette Midler and the wonderful cast of this new Dolly, all this is accomplished without a single ounce of sugary sentimentality.
Of course, this musical is richly blessed with good bones.
The book by Michael Stewart moves along solidly with all the right turns and trappings at all the right moments. The music and lyrics by Jerry Herman give us a bounty of show stoppers, ballads and even newly-inserted numbers (like Penny in My Pocket) that demonstrate time and again why this is Broadway gold. The direction by Jerry Zaks manages to be both faithful and inventive and snappy, no small feat when you consider the nature of the project. The choreography by Warren Carlyle pays homage to Gower Champion but is so fresh and alive, it makes you yearn for more and more dancing on Broadway right now. And the scenic and costume design by Santo Loquasto evokes a glorious American era in hues and flourishes that you will never forget.
Dolly has a cast of 37 with a 28-piece orchestra and the grandest, most spectacular numbers you'll see anywhere on Broadway. From the rousing Put on You Sunday Clothes to the breathless Before The Parade Passes By to the catchy Dancing, to the comic Elegance and the lushly romantic Ribbons Down My Back, Dolly never fails to deliver.
But of course, it's the near manic title number that brings down the house. Yes, when Bette Midler begins to walk down those steps into the Harmonia Gardens, she demonstrates once again that you don't need pyrotechnics or special effects to electrify an audience, even in 2017. She gleefully maximizes every moment of this infectious anthem but never, ever hams it up. Coming on the heels of the ingenious Waiters' Gallop (a classic of choreography) the Hello, Dolly! number lasts nearly seven minutes, with Midler joking at one point, "Oh, I think I got it on tonight!" But when it's over the audience is still literally screaming and crying for more.
Tony winner Gavin Creel is sheer perfection as Cornelius Hackl, David Hyde Pierce is marvelous as Horace Vandergelder and Kate Baldwin, Taylor Trensch, Will Burton and Beanie Feldstein are all perfectly cast as well.
It's hard to believe Dolly hasn't been on Broadway for more than two decades. While there have been revivals, there's been nothing like this since the original production closed in 1970 after 2,844 performances, holding Broadway's "longest running" record for 37 years.
But now Dolly is, indeed, back where she belongs and night after night audiences are in a state of near giddy ecstasy that begins with roars of approval as the first notes of the overture are played and doesn't end until well after the finale when big crowds gather outside the stage door on Shubert Alley to offer Benediction to Bette.
We've seen nearly 250 Broadway shows but we've never seen anything like this.
The star, the cast and the audience are joined in syncopated glee. It's something you'll never, ever forget.
Do whatever you have to do -- save your pennies, take out a second mortgage, bribe somebody, rearrange your schedule, hop a plane, bus, train, ride a bike, run, jog, walk -- but get to the Shubert Theater and see Hello, Dolly!
This is why Broadway was born!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Here's Ten I Wish I'd Seen . . .

In one form or another, I've seen more than 200 Broadway musicals. Yes, I've seen some of them in previews or on the road or in summer stock. But I've seen most of them on the Great White Way itself, the way they were meant to be seen.
Of course, it's near impossible to see every show, every season.
But there are some that I missed that I've never gotten over. Even now, years later, they gnaw at me.
In no particular order, here are ten that got away -- ten musicals I still long to see:

1) Mack & Mabel
Yeah, I know they say this Jerry Herman musical romance set in the early days of Hollywood was a flop. But the cast recording (with Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters) is brilliant and I wouldn't mind making up my own mind about the show, thank you.

2) Allegro
It's said that Stephen Sondheim has been working on this failed Rodgers and Hammerstein show (a rarity, indeed) for years in an effort to fix it. But even the great Sondheim (who was mentored by Hammerstein) hasn't yet come up with the solution. I'd love to see what the puzzlement is really all about.

3) Sail Away
Did the great Noel Coward write many other musicals? I plead guilty; I don't know. But I do know that he wrote this one for the great Elaine Stritch and that's certainly reason enough to want to see it. Plus, book, music and lyrics by Coward. How bad could it be?

4) Aspects of Love
Even a "flop" by Andrew Llyod Webber is better than most, right? It ran for 399 performances on Broadway and more than 1,300 in London. They say Lord Andrew is still tinkering with this one and may yet revive it. I can only hope!

5) Ballroom
Michael Bennett, Michael Bennett, Michael Bennett. He's the one who dreamed it all up, choreographed it and directed it. And it had lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman -- one of only two musicals they ever did. Plus, that great song Fifty Percent. Wish I'd been there for the full 100% of this one.

6) Anyone Can Whistle
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and starring Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury and Harry Guardino with a book by Authur Laurents. Includes the title song as well as With So Little To Be Sure Of, There's A Parade In Town and Everybody Says Don't. We say, do, do do try it again!

7) No Strings
The first post Rodgers and Hammerstein show for which Richard Rodgers wrote both the music and lyrics. Not only was it the first modern musical to deal with an interracial love affair but it also introduced Diahann Carroll to the world, along with the haunting The Sweetest Sound and the beautiful title song. Wrap it in a brown paper package tied up in strings and send it back to Broadway!

8) Oh, Kay!
We're talking the 1990 version of the Gershwin musical produced by David Merrick which was technically Merrick's last solo production on Broadway. This version was set in Harlem and featured an all black cast. We were intrigued. But somehow, we never got to one of the 112 performances. Oh, damn!

9) Two By Two
The story of Noah and his arc set to music with Danny Kaye hamming it up as Noah. We would have loved to have seen the arc and, by the way, what about all those animals? Another post R&H show with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Martin Charnin. Noteworthy: The catchy title song and the ballad I Did Not Know A Day I Did Not Love You which was recorded by Tony Bennett.

10) The Pajama Game
The 2006 Roundabout revival of this classic Abe Burrows, Jerome Robbins musical starring Kelli O'Hara and Harry Connick, Jr. with three songs added by the original composer-lyricist Richard Adler and directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall was at the top of my list. But it was a limited run and I never got to make any of the 170 performances.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Could This Really Be The One? Could It?

Many people feel this will be the show that will win the Tony award.
And the male lead seems to have the inside track as well.

Sometimes, The Show Just Doesn't Come Together

What's the point of reviewing a show that's already opened and closed?
Well, at the very least, it's instructive.
Such is the case with Amélie, the musical version of the whimsical French film that captivated hearts throughout the world in 2001.
Amélie tells the story of an innocent and naive girl in Paris with her own sense of justice. As she grows up she decides to help those around her and, along the way, discovers love.
The movie was lighthearted and romantic without being saccharine in a way that only the French seem able to concoct. The road that Amélie takes to find her true love takes many detours, some predictable, some totally surprising and some just this side of absurd. But it all worked.
Here's one of the big differences that occurred in Amélie's transformation to the stage: In the movie, Amélie was somewhat of a meddler. And that was funny and decidedly human as her idea of helping people was not necessarily what the recipients had in mind or maybe not even what they may have actually needed. But in the musical, much of this was lost and Amélie simply came across as a do-gooder. The result is another small, somewhat preachy musical about being gentle, kind and helpful.
So, the musical just sort of muddled along in its own rather false "pure-hearted" way and the characters become more like caricatures. The whole outing developed into a sort of French version of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. And anyone who can imagine this could see that Babar and Charlie Brown simply don't pair well. 
Still, Amelie was widely anticipated on Broadway because it starred Phillipa Soo, who had been nominated for a Tony Award last year for originating the role of Eliza in Hamilton. And the show did well during a run up to Broadway at the Ahmanson Theater in LA.
Amélie featured music by Daniel Messé, lyrics by Mr. Messé and Nathan Tysen, and a book by Craig Lucas; it was directed by Pam MacKinnon. The music was serviceable but it never really soared. And Soo seemed stuck in a tiny musical with a constricted story that never seemed to give her character a chance to become more three-dimensional.
Unlike Groundhog Day (which reinterpreted the movie on which it is based in a new way geared toward 2017 audiences and fashioned specifically for a big Broadway stage) Amélie just didn't seem to be able to make the switch. In its transition to the stage the story actually seemed to get smaller and less consequential and the characters were robbed of any depth they might have otherwise developed. Sadly, one got the impression that the whole thing was done on a shoestring.
Still, the show managed to garner some favorable snippets from the critics and it might have survived longer had it garnered some Tony nominations. But it wound up with a big, fat zero.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Time To Banish 'Small' From The Great White Way?

As a general rule, we don't like small musicals.
Because "small" and "Broadway" just don't seem to go well together.
To begin with a Broadway theater must have 500 seats or more. Otherwise, it simply doesn't qualify as Broadway. Most Broadway theaters accommodate 800 to 1500 or more theatergoers.
To succeed in a larger house, you usually need a bigger show. Even when a show that originates off-Broadway moves to Broadway, its staging usually has to grow larger to adapt to the change. Often, that also means more musicians and other changes in scenery, lighting and maybe even cast size to make it a real "Broadway" production. Sadly, it doesn't always happen this way.
For us, a Broadway musical is naturally big with a large musical accompaniment, significant production numbers, perhaps some name stars and, finally, scenery, costumes and staging to match. Also, the show usually has a distinct Broadway sound. The unique Broadway sound is often referred to as “Tin Pan Alley,” a musical structure that was pioneered by songwriters such as  Irving Berlin, George Gershwin,  Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and many others. Tin Pan Alley got its name from a Manhattan street full of music publishers who hired composers and lyricists to write songs that eventually came to define American popular music. These songs constituted pop music up till the time of rock 'n roll and they are now enshrined in what is known as The Great American Songbook. Much of the songbook's sound originated on Broadway.
But every now and then (and seemingly now more so than ever) Broadway strays from its rich legacy and attempts to hand us a smaller, more intimate musical -- something the creators deem more accessible. Usually, these musicals have a cast of characters numbering in single digits and musical accompaniment on the same small scale. Sets are minimal (perhaps with little or no variation) and costumes are also kept simple. And frequently, there is no "Broadway sound" to speak (or sing) of. Instead, the show may borrow from folk music, ethnic music, rock, rap, hip-hop, soul or other traditions. Once recent small musical was performed entirely acapella.
Somewhere between the little musical and the Really Big Broadway Shows (such as Chicago, Phantom of the Opera, Hello Dolly and Wicked) we have the little-bit-bigger-than-small musical -- shows that seem to fall in between. These are wanna-be-big musicals that don't quite make it. And now, these not-quite-big-musicals are starting to steal the show. You know what we're talking about. We're referring to musicals like Next To Normal, Fun Home, Falsettos, Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen.
Sure, these kinds of shows have been around awhile. Even the quintessential Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (trained by Oscar Hammerstein himself) has dipped into the smaller format once or twice with shows like Assassins and, to some extent, Passion. But now, some of these small and midsize shows seem to be gaining attention and honors that may be all out of proportion to their actual worth. Just look at Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away if you're not convinced of that. True, these shows purport to take on important and au courant themes and issues. But that alone does not qualify them for significant status.
For our tastes, we go to Broadway for the razzle-dazzle -- the rich orchestrations, the booming voices, the inspiring sets, the  costumes, the stars, even the special effects. After all, Irving Berlin's anthem to big entertainment begins with "the costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props" in reminding us why "there's no business like show business."
If you want to see a "little" show, then maybe you should spend your time supporting little theater. Because maybe size and spectacle and sound just don't matter to you.
But of you're going to spend the sort of bucks it takes to patronage a theater run by Shubert, Nederlander or Jujamcyn, then you have a right to expect a whole lot more.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Dolly, Kline, Midler, Karl Win Outer Critics Honors!

Outer Critics Circle 2016-2017 Awards -- just announced:


Come From Away

If I Forget

The Band’s Visit

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Irene Sankoff & David Hein Come From Away

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
David Yazbek The Band’s Visit

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Hello, Dolly!

Rebecca Taichman Indecent

Christopher Ashley Come From Away

Warren Carlyle Hello, Dolly!

(Play or Musical)
Mimi Lien Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

(Play or Musical)
Catherine Zuber War Paint

(Play or Musical)
Bradley King Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

(Play or Musical)
Aaron Rhyne Anastasia

(Play or Musical)
Gareth Owen Come From Away

Larry Hochman Hello, Dolly!

Kevin Kline Present Laughter

Laura Linney The Little Foxes

Andy Karl Groundhog Day

Bette Midler Hello, Dolly!

Danny DeVito The Price

Cynthia Nixon The Little Foxes

Gavin Creel Hello, Dolly!

Jenn Colella Come From Away

Simon McBurney The Encounter

(Presented for an American play, preferably by a new playwright)
Bess Wohl Small Mouth Sounds