Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Worst Shows of 2014

In addition to my annual Best Shows features, it is also a tradition here at Broadway, Etc. to make a list of the worst theatrical offerings of any given year. I must admit, the article is a bit late this year as I debated whether or not to even publish a Worst of 2014 list. I have lately come to feel there is a lot of unwarranted negativity among the industry and less support than there should be for the incredibly hard task of mounting a show, especially a new work. But ultimately, I decided that if my blog is retain any legitimacy as a platform for reviews, I need to be able to point out the bad along with the good (if all my reviews are rave reviews, they don't really mean much).

And with that preface, here are the 5 least enjoyable experiences I had last year.

5) Bullets Over Broadway

Looks like a charming, old fashioned musical comedy, right? Unfortunately for us, looks can be deceiving.

Susan Stroman, a director/choreographer I have the utmost respect for, had a rough 2013-2014 season. While she had the honor of helming two big budget, highly anticipated new musicals, both productions failed to impress critics and shuttered within a few months of opening. But whereas I really enjoyed her Big Fish despite its flaws, there are few saving graces to her misguided collaboration with Woody Allen, Bullets Over Broadway. Allen's particular brand of comedy is very specific and intimate, making it perfectly suited for film but a poor fit for the Broadway stage. His script for Bullets fell flat, with the premise (backstage shenanigans in the 1920s) promising far more laughs than the show actually delivered. Stroman's direction felt frantic, perhaps in an attempt to provide the laughs Allen and the show's period score failed to deliver. The decision to us pre-existing songs also limited the show's potential, forcing the pair to awkwardly shoehorn musical numbers into the book scenes. The entire cast struggled to find their footing, and although many called out Marin Mazzie for grandstanding as the show-within-a-show's booze addled diva, at least she provided some much needed life to an otherwise dull affair. By the time the literally bananas finale rolled around, both the cast and the audience seemed visibly relieved the entire affair was over.

4) Les Miserables

The fresh faced cast of Les Miserables is certainly excited to be there, but even their enthusiasm can't breathe life into this ponderous, too-soon revival.

For all its 80s bombast, I've always had a soft spot for Les Miserables, perhaps because the original production was my first ever Broadway show. So while I felt it was far too soon for another Broadway revival, given the 2006 production and the very successful film version, I went into the Imperial Theatre excited to see what a reimagined Les Miz might look like. Unfortunately, this current production highlights all of the show's flaws (thin writing, cheaply emotional power ballads, an overlong length) and none of its strengths (a genuinely touching story of redemption, a richly melodic sung-through score). Many actors are obviously miscast and/or misdirected, with normally reliable performers like Will Swenson and Nikki M. James delivering work far below their usual high standard. That said, credit must be given where credit is due: Ramin Karimloo is a superb Jean Valjean, and his spine-tingling delivery of the iconic "Bring Him Home" is one of the vocal highlights of the season. Too bad the rest of the production wasn't up to Karimloo's high level.
3) Rocky

Andy Karl and the cast of Rocky perform "Eye of the Tiger." When the most memorable song in your musical is something you didn't even write, you might have a problem.

When first presented with the idea of a Broadway musical based on the Oscar-winning film Rocky, most people were sceptical. But the involvement of Tony-winning songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, whose Ragtime is one of the single greatest achievements in musical theatre writing ever, not to mention rising star director Alex Timbers piqued everyone's curiosity and convinced many that Rocky just might work onstage. As it turns out, our gut instincts were the right ones, with the resulting show failing in just about every conceivable way despite the talent involved. The primary problem seems to be one of tone, with Flaherty & Ahrens believing the working class Rocky Balboa and his friends merited small, intimate writing while Timbers insisted on a gargantuan physical production that often drowned out the storytelling happening onstage. The final 20 minute boxing match, which moved the audience onstage and the action into the audience, was indeed an eye popping spectacle, but by that point the damage had already been done by 2 hours of questionable character motivations and non-existent drama. One of the year's biggest disappointments.

2) 50 Shades! - The Musical

Eye candy is about all 50 Shades! - The Musical has going for it.

Given the popularity and absurdity of the bestselling novel/Twilight erotica 50 Shades of Grey, it was only a matter of time before someone developed a tongue in cheek musical spoof. No one expects a show like 50 Shades! - The Musical to be high art, but I was expecting something a fair bit better than the travesty currently playing at Off-Broadway's Elektra Theatre. Even at a mere sixty minutes, 50 Shades! feels like an eternity, with the show lasting far beyond the writers' ability to sustain their already thin premise. The songs are blandly forgettable and the direction overly simplistic, leaving the fresh faced cast with nothing to hold onto as they try to find some redeeming quality in this variety sketch the miraculously managed to score a full production. I have never been so close to leaving a show at intermission (yes, even though the show is only an hour long the producers felt the need to prolong the agony by still including an intermission). To be fair, the numerous groups of women in the audience seemed to be having a grand old time, although I suspect that had more to do with their heavy alcohol consumption than it did with the quality of the production.

1) Mothers and Sons

During the BC/EFA collection speech during curtain call, Bobby Steggert (left) promised the highest bidder a four person re-enactment of the Tyne Daly (right) Gypsy. That would have been *infinitely* more entertaining than the preceding 90 minutes.

Many critics considered Terrance McNally's Mothers and Sons one of the spring season's highlights, and it even managed to snag a much coveted Best Play Tony nomination despite a fair bit of competition. I don't know what show those people saw, but the ponderous "drama" I saw last March at the Golden Theatre committed so many dramaturgical sins it's difficult to know where to begin. McNally's unsuccessful attempt to tackle every aspect of the modern gay male's life (marriage equality, familial acceptance, child rearing, the still relevant threat of AIDS, etc.) in the span of ninety minutes led to characters who were mere mouthpieces rather than three dimensional human beings. McNally didn't even have the sense to make them consistent mouthpieces, with characters adopting wildly different and at times diametrically opposed views from moment to moment to keep the heavy-handed lecture going, even though the play's short length prohibited any meaningful discussion of the many loaded and multifaceted issues that arose. Even more shocking is how poorly the show was acted, with the much lauded Tyne Daly turning in a performance that was stiff, wooden, and anything put believable (not that McNally's thin writing did her any favors). Everyone involved is capable of much better, and Mothers and Sons is easily the worst show I had the misfortune of encountering this past year.

And there you have it; the 5 shows with the dubious honor of being the least enjoyable productions of 2014. In an ideal world, I won't have anything to put on this list for 2015. That probably won't be the case, but one can always dream.

Happy New Year everybody!


  1. Interesting list. For your best and worst of 2015 though, your should list your worst shows first and your best shows second. I personally think when it comes to bests and worsts, the worsts should always be dealt with first so that way the best can be positively celebrated without the shadow of the worst looming in the distance.

  2. Fifty Shades Of Grey the movie did manage to win the Razzie Award for Worst Picture (it actually tied with Fantastic Four).