ArtsIndependent goes to Broadway with Robert Viagas.
The sage of the stage shares his thoughts on four powerhouse musicals currently gracing the boards. As founding editor-in-chief of Playbill online for a quarter century,
Mr. Viagas knows a couple’a things about musical theatre.
Starting with the classics…
Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II,
directed by Daniel Fish.
Among the saddest carnage created by developments in politics and news in the last few years is the damage done to America’s image in the world, and the self-image in our hearts. We were the clean, noble, honest, open-hearted people of the world—the “good guys.”
The outlook today is very different from the early months of World War II when American freedom shone like a beacon in the fascist darkness, the time when Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers wrote the groundbreaking musical Oklahoma! as a celebration of all good things American.
In many ways, that vision been replaced with a national image of angry cowboys addicted to guns and bloodshed, of broken race relations, and of powerful people’s ability to press their thumbs on the scales of justice. The new Broadway revival of Oklahoma!has been reconceived by director Daniel Fish as a reflection of that new self-image. Not a word of the original Hammerstein book or lyrics has been changed (though a few added). The reinterpretation is all in the staging of the beloved cowboy musical. More accurately, he found the darkness that was already lurking in the corners of the story, just as it was already lurking in the nation in the 1940s.
As entertainment it is often startling; the familiar songs appear like old friends in sometimes alarming new costumes. As commentary the revival is as searing as the chili they cook on stage during Act I and dish up to the audience free at intermission. Not everyone will like it, but credit is due for boldness and imagination.
The story begins innocently enough, with and pretty farm girl named Laurie (Rebecca Naomi Jones) trying to decide who will take her to the town’s “box social”: the handsome cowboy Curly (Damon Daunno) or brooding farm hand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill). But their rivalry darkens, and throws its shadow over the scene in which Curly tries to get Jud to kill himself to gain the sympathy of townsfolk who “treat him bad.” The scene is played almost entirely in literal pitch darkness.
The most sobering moment comes at the end, after poor Jud is really dead, shot by Curly for threatening Laurie on their wedding day. Their white formalwear spattered with Jud’s blood, the wedding party sings the grimmest version of the show’s bouncy title song you’re ever heard.
Daunno plays his own guitar and sweetly sings “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” but his performance of Curly come off more like a kid wearing his dad’s cowboy boots. Jones is a tough tomboy of a Laurie, and Mary Testa is an authoritative Aunt Eller. But the breakout performance of this production is Ali Stroker as wheelchair using Ado Annie. Her lusty, country-flavored performance of “I Cain’t Say No” brings down the house.
Speaking of the house, the show has been staged at Broadway’s most unusual playhouse, the in-the-round Circle in the Square. Lara Jellinek’s set includes raw wood planking with a spare number of chairs and tables that are rearranged to as needed to suggest the various locations in the story. Orchestrator Daniel Kluger has reduced Robert Russell Bennet’s lush original full orchestra down to a seven-piece virtual jug band that ably reflects the new interpretation while still cherishing Rodgers’ musical genius.
Amid the darkness of this production, there is a ray of light. It should be noted by fans of musical theatre that we are living in a time when classics My Fair Lady; Kiss Me, Kate; and now Oklahoma! are all playing on Broadway simultaneously. Maybe there’s hope after all.
Oklahoma! is scheduled to run through January 19, 2020 at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway.
Kiss Me, Kate
Music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Bella and Sam Spewack
There are certain shows which, by virtue of the classic scores, funny librettos, or sheer dramatic brio ought to be kept in revival on Broadway all the time. Kiss Me, Kate would be high on that list if it weren’t for one problem: its sometimes musty attitude toward women, especially in the #MeToo era. The show is built around Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and the original production ended with the leading lady singing “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,” based on the Bard’s original final speech. Is she being serious, sarcastic, or just telling her husband what he wants to hear?
Roundabout Theatre Company’s high-energy current revival, starring Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase, gets around the latter problem by editing Shakespeare slightly, changing the lyric to “I Am Ashamed That PEOPLE Are So Simple,” but the uncomfortable woman “taming” issues manage to peek through.
And that’s really saying something because director Scott Ellis has mounted an otherwise joyous production, crowded with fun—especially from the lithe members of the dancing chorus, as choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Among the high points are the virtuosic acrobatics of “Tom, Dick or Harry” as performed by Will Burton, Rick Faugno and the show’s limber co-star Corbin Bleu. Bleu later flips himself over and begin tapping upside down and an overhang.
O’Hara is extremely talented and deserving of the many lead roles she has gotten in recent years. That said, she seemed to lack the world-weariness the role longtime stage veteran and divorcee Lilli Vanessi requires. She and Chase sometimes seemed like kids play-acting in their parents’ clothes.
Still, it’s great to hear them, and the rest of the cast, once again singing Cole Porter standards like “So in Love,” “Wonderbar,” “Too Darn Hot,” and “Another Op’nin, Another Show” back where they belong, on Broadway.
Kiss Me, Kate is playing a limited run through June 30 at Studio 54.
Engaging in pop-culture…
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations
Book by Dominique Morisseau, based on “The Temptations” by Otis Williams. Music and lyrics by various composers.
We all connect certain songs with special events in our lives. Hearing the music can evoke a long-vanished person, place or activity. This phenomenon accounts for the popularity of so-called “jukebox musicals”—ones that celebrate the songbook of a particular performer, songwriter or group.
The backstage, onstage, and offstage story of the 1960s Motown superstars The Temptations is told in the latest jukebox biomusical Ain’t Too Proud, now on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre.
If you love the Temptations and have fond memories that spring to life when you hear their hits “My Girl,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” and more than two dozen other chart-climbers, you will also likely love this show.
Slickly and professionally done, with Sergio Trujillo’s loving recreations of the group’s signature choreography, plus lighting, costumes and even hair design that subtly guide the audience from the early 1960s through the mid 1970s.
Librettist Dominique Morisseau shows she learned the lessons of previous jukebox smashes like Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in showing the ups and downs of the artists while using their hit songs more or less like showtunes to comment on the action.
The story is narrated by Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), who is credited as the group’s founder and captain as it navigates through the storms of politics, history, tangling with the juggernaut of Motown Records, boss Berry Gordy, and especially drug abuse among the group’s members. He is depicted as having personal failings: his marriage breaks up and he neglects his only son. The one constant is his single-minded devotion to The Temptations, which, by the way, he still leads in 2019 as it goes on touring forever with the latest lineup of singers.
The other characters tend to blur together, given little more than a verbal tic or a favorite piece of clothing to pass as character development.
It’s a fun, entertaining, skin-deep show, very much in the style of Jersey Boys, and depending on the same well of nostalgia and happy personal associations with the group’s catchy close-harmony tunes.
Ain’t Too Proud is playing an open-ended run at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway.
Music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell
When I first heard they were doing a musical based on the Orpheus legend, I was skeptical. But then I read it again and was reminded that Orpheus believes he can charm Hades, lord of the Underworld, because of the supernatural beauty of his voice. Now that’s a musical idea!
The classical Greek legend of the gods-touched musician Orpheus and his quest to retrieve his love Eurydice from the grip of Death itself is given fresh currency in the thrilling new Broadway musical Hadestown. Directed by Rachel Chavkin, the musical transforms one of Western Civilization’s oldest stories into one of its newest and freshest.
Set in an ancient Greece that looks and sounds like Depression-era New Orleans, Hadestown benefits from a Cajun-flavored score by rock singer and songwriter Anaïs Mitchell that is full of darkly brilliant music. In a bid for contemporary relevance, she has Hades sing a number called “Why We Build the Wall,” which includes the lyric, “Because we have and they have not!/Because they want what we have got!”
Not all the lyrics are that pointed. And way too many are just sloppily rhymed. In song after song we hear the likes of “rut” rhymed with “up,” “crave” with “days,” “down” with “ground”—and those examples were from just one number. It’s especially annoying in a show that is otherwise so good.
The show is anchored by performances from two cool, wicked old-timers: slick André De Shields as Hermes, who narrates and knowingly comments on the proceedings; and Broadway’s favorite villain, Patrick Page, deploying his foundation-shaking basso as Hades. Page once again plays nemesis to his Spider-Man co-star Reeve Carney as Orpheus. And if Carney’s voice doesn’t quite measure up to Page’s (ironically, in this story of a magical vocal cords), he lets his burning desire to reunite with his love Eurydice (Eva Noblezada, recently on Broadway in the title role of Miss Saigon) shine through the stygian darkness (lighting designed by Bradley King).
Among the younger cast members, the standout is Amber Grey as Hades’ slinky unstable wife, Persephone, who somehow loves her icy husband even though he forces her to spend half of each year in hell. She sees in Orpheus and Eurydice an echo of her own story, and, in the song “How Long?” she begs Hades to give Orpheus one chance. Hermes sings that even though we all know how the tragedy ends, we relive it again and again, hoping that one day it will turn out differently.
This one-of-a-kind show is new only to Broadway. It was developed in Vermont starting in 2006, earned a concept album that developed a cult following, and debuted in 2016 at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshopthat led to this production, which has some four dozen names above the title as producers. Though there are funny moments, Hadestown is clearly the serious entry in this season’s lineup of musical comedies. It’s a grown-up theatre piece that does the most of all the shows to open this season to advance the musical theatre form.
Hadestown is playing an open-ended run at the Walter Kerr Theatre Broadway.
And now, from screen to scene…
Music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Robert Horn,
based on the film by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart
Several things set Tootsie apart from the recent spate of Broadway musicals based on popular Hollywood movies.
Most importantly, its creators understood that a stage musical is more than just a movie script with a bunch of songs jammed in willy-nilly. A musical tells a story that requires music and dance in order to live, populated with characters who burst with emotions that demand to be sung.
The 1982 film comedy starred Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey, a male actor whose diva behavior has gotten him blacklisted by every director in town. To escape his poisoned reputation, he disguises himself as a woman, whom he names Dorothy Michaels. Not only is his drag act convincing to casting directors, but Michael finds that by playing a woman, his whole attitude begins to evolve and mature. He finds that he’s actually a better person as a woman than as a man. He also becomes the star of a hit soap opera. But how long can he keep the façade from falling?
To make that story musical, songwriter David Yazbek and librettist Robert Horn changed its whole show-biz milieu, with strong results. Instead of trying to get a job in a TV soap opera, Dorothy now wants to be the star of a Broadway musical. This gives them lots of room to fill the script with witty Broadway jokes and allows characters to more naturally break into song.
And instead of trying to find an actor who looks and sounds like Dustin Hoffman (who won an Oscar in the role), they went with the talented Santino Fontana, who played the prince in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, and played the singing love interest on the TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. He’s brilliant in the role, and creates his own idea of what Dorothy looks and sounds like. His head voice, often a stumbling block for male drag performers, is lovely and convincingly feminine.
The authors also wisely took 21stcentury feminist objections head-on by writing the objections into the show, and making the issues of oppressive patriarchy and the celebration of female identity central to the story.
Yazbek’s score sounds nothing like his Tony-winning score to 2018’s The Band’s Visit, but often echoes his lesser-known 2010 musical adaptation of another film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. His showstoppingly zany patter number “What’s Gonna Happen” (a tour de force for Tony-nominated featured actress Sarah Stiles) is the sister of the Laura Benanti marathon “Model Behavior” in the earlier show. As leading lady Julie Nichols, Lilli Cooper is a little too supportive of Dorothy taking over the lead in her show, and allows herself to be elbowed out of the spotlight.
Master comedian Michael McGrath also has far too little to do as the on-again off-again agent Stan Fields, but he gets one great memorable moment, performing one of the longest and funniest slow-burns (from behind a close door yet) in recent stage history.
Side note: Tootsie seems to follow the same basic plot as another Broadway musical hit, Dear Evan Hansen: an outcast makes himself the center of attention by creating a false story about his life that delights everyone around him for a while, but eventually gets uncovered, with calamitous results. Why does this story hold such audience appeal?
Another side note: Thank you, Tootsie creators, for calling your show not Tootsie: The Musical or David Yazbek’s Tootsie, but simply and straightforwardly Tootsie.
Tootsie is playing an open-ended run at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway.