Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best Shows of 2016: Part II

I've already revealed the first half of my Best of 2016 list, and now it's time to reveal my picks for the Top 5 Shows of 2016. As always, the criteria for making this list is as follows: the show must have officially opened in 2016, and it must have been seen by yours truly. Think of it as more of a list of personal favorites than a definitive "best of" list (since I did not manage to see several highly acclaimed productions).

Here are my Top 5 Shows of 2016:

5) Bright Star

Carmen Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan in Bright Star.

Like American Psycho before it, Bright Star is another show from the spring of 2016 that just didn't have the kind of run it truly deserved. Unlike American Psycho, Bright Star actually had a fair number of critical champions, and word of mouth from those who actually saw it was quite strong. Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's bluegrass score was a true stunner, especially on repeated listening, and while the story was perhaps predictable it was never anything less than involving. In fact, it is a testament to the show's strength that audiences remained emotionally invested despite the big reveal being fairly obvious from the outset. And the cherry on top of this already wonderful cake was the star making performance of Carmen Cusack in the lead role of Alice Murphy, playing the spunky literary editor as both an exuberant youth and a stern adult. Cusack astounded with her big voice and even bigger emotions, and will hopefully become a much more regular fixture on the New York stage in the years to come.

4) Waitress

Jessie Mueller and the cast of Waitress.

There was never any doubt that Hamilton would dominate the 2016 Tony Awards, leaving Sara Bareilles' positively delightful Waitress a perpetual runner up. In my opinion, this feel good musical confection (the first Broadway tuner to boast an entirely female creative team) was the second best new show of the 2015-2016 season, exceeding expectations thanks to an absolutely charming book, score, and cast. Bareilles, director Diane Paulus, and librettist Jessie Nelson have crafted a romantic drama with a ton of heart, one which hews close enough to tradition to remain comforting while packing just enough twists to hold your interest. And anchoring everything is Jessie Mueller's towering, Tony-nominated performance as Jenna, the small town waitress with big city aspirations. Mueller possesses a depth of feeling few actors have, and powerhouse vocals that make a mighty feast of Bareilles' soaring melodies. By the time Mueller finishes her 11 o'clock stunner "She Used to Be Mine" (one of the most gorgeous showtunes of the past several seasons), she has left absolutely everything on the stage, and the audience is all the better for it.

3) Noises Off

The company of Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Noises Off.

Few plays have managed the sustained levels of hilarity found in Noises Off, the gold standard of farce written by playwright Michael Frayn in 1983. This season saw an absolutely sensational revival mounted by Roundabout Theatre Company (which had one of its best seasons in ages) which produced over two hours of near continuous laughter. Every member of the ensemble had multiple moments of gut busting hilarity, be it Megan Hilty looking for her missing contact, Andrea Martin struggling to remember where exactly to place the sardines, or Kate Jennings Grant literally rolling across the stage trying to remove an errant prop. There was such a dizzying array of comic genius on display that it was impossible to fully appreciate everything in a single viewing, and the nearly wordless second act was the most bravura example of comedic excellence I have perhaps ever witnessed. A true masterwork in every sense of the word.

2) Dear Evan Hansen

Ben Platt (center) and the Broadway cast of Dear Evan Hansen.

I have yet to see the show's much lauded Broadway transfer, but given the stellar shape Dear Evan Hansen was in when I saw it at Second Stage Theatre in the spring I have not qualms about naming it one of the best of the year. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have written a searing contemporary score, bursting at the seams with emotion and drive and delivering on all the promise they showed in the Tony-nominated A Christmas Story several years back. The wholly original narrative about an awkward teen's misguided attempt to capitalize on his unexpected internet fame speaks directly to our modern social media obsessed culture, while also touching upon universal concerns about belonging and our place in the world. Director Michael Mayer has crafted an energy-infused staging that owes no small debt to his brilliant work on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal, and in an ensemble of fine actors special mention must go to Ben Platt's jaw-dropping work as the title character. The young star's performance must be seen to be believed, and already has the town buzzing in a manner similar to the talk surrounding eventual Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo's work in The Color Purple. Tickets are not easy to come by, but definitely worth the investment, especially for those who enjoy supporting entirely original musicals.

1) She Loves Me

Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi in She Loves Me.

Perfection. It is not a term I use lightly, but it is wholly appropriate when describing Roundabout Theatre Company's transcendent revival of Bock and Harnick's classic musical romance She Loves Me. Every facet of the production, from the gorgeous set and costumes to the pitch perfect performances and direction, exuded such love for both the piece and the theatre in general that it was positively infectious. Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi were superbly cast as the feuding perfumerie clerks secretly made for one another, sharing an electric chemistry and a masterful understanding of how to act a song. The supporting cast was also excellent, including a deliciously smarmy and gloriously sung turn by Gavin Creel as the womanizing Kodaly. And words seem hardly adequate to describe the comedic perfection that was Jane Krakowski as the lovelorn Ilona, whether she was doing the splits or sharing the details of her life changing "Trip to the Library." Broadway musicals simply don't get any better than this.

And there you have it! Those are my Best Shows of 2016. For next year, I will have to make a resolution to be better about reviewing all the shows I see (it's a shame I didn't write down my thoughts about American Psycho, Bright Star, or Waitress while they were fresh). Be sure to keep checking this blog space for reviews of all the big spring shows, and don't be shy about sharing your favorites of the year in the comments.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Best Shows of 2016: Part I

As we approach the end of a calendar year which has seen plenty of political upheaval and more than a few untimely celebrity deaths, it feels even more necessary to remember all the good that 2016 had to offer. On this blog, that means looking back on the best shows of 2016, those productions which moved, challenged, and entertained us while also showcasing the abundance of talent in New York City.

In order to be eligible for inclusion, a production must have had its official opening night in 2016, and it must have been seen by yours truly. And since I have neither the means nor the time to see everything which premieres in a given year, there will obviously be some worthy omissions from this list, so don't take a show's exclusion as indication that I didn't like it. (Except Falsettos; while I don't think it's a bad production, I honestly don't understand why this clunkily constructed musical is causing such a fuss among critics.)

Here are the first 5 of my Top 10 Shows of 2016; the rest will follow shortly!

10) Eclipsed

Lupita Nyong'o and Zainab Jab in the Broadway production of Eclipsed.

The 2015-2016 Broadway season was heralded for its diversity, both onstage and off, and there were few more compelling examples of that diversity than Eclipsed. Written, performed, and directed by women of color, Danai Gurira's play brought a fresh and authentic perspective to the story of women struggling to survive during the Liberian Civil War. And while the women's circumstances were often harrowing and deadly serious, Gurira's play was also incisively funny and ultimately hopeful, refusing to allow its characters to become victims of their circumstances. Expertly portrayed by stunningly accomplished group of actresses (including Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o in a thrilling Broadway debut), the wives at Eclipsed's center emerged as powerful and intelligent women who each found their own ways of coping with the horrors which surrounded them. It demonstrated just how much giving underrepresented perspectives a voice can invigorate the American theatre, and one can only hope that Broadway will continue to support this kind of probing work.

9) In Transit

Margo Seibert, Moya Angela, and the company of In Transit.

Every year I seem to have a soft spot for at least one show that is dismissed by critics and the audience at large. And while In Transit is by no means the best show I've ever seen ignored by the theatre community at large, it has a lot more to offer than most reviews would lead you to believe. For one, the a cappella score lends the musical a sound unlike any other, a deceptively complex composition with multi-layered harmonies and carefully crafted vocal lines. The performances are all charming, and the characters show us an underexplored facet of the human experience: the transition from the idealistic, impassioned twenties to the more measured but no less intense thirties. The show's New York specific humor and beast of a score will like hold this show back from having much of a life outside of the city, which is unfortunate but perhaps fitting for a show where the setting is as much a character as any of the people in the narrative.

8) The Woodsman

The Off-Broadway company, both human and puppet, of The Woodsman.

At some point, almost everyone who sees enough theatre will start to decry the lack of originality, bemoaning the abundance of "safe" productions with traditional structures and narratives. Shows like The Woodsman prove there is still plenty of invention to be found for those willing to seek it out, offering one of the most thrillingly theatrical experiences of the year. Using very little dialogue, this one-act prequel to the Wizard of Oz was story theatre at its best, utilizing sound, puppetry, and wildly inventive stagecraft to tell the story of how the Tin Man lost his heart. The seamless ensemble, led by the show's writer and director James Ortiz, transported the audience to a dark yet entrancing corner of the merry old land of Oz while tapping into primal emotions which transcend mere words. Thankfully this delightful production was recorded for posterity, and can be streamed right now from BroadwayHD.

7) American Psycho

Benjamin Walker (center) and the cast of American Psycho.

One of the most divisive productions of the year, those who saw American Psycho either really loved it or really didn't. I happen to fall into the former category, being completely smitten by how brazenly the show flaunted the conventions of Broadway to tell the story of ladder climbing serial killer Patrick Bateman. Benjamin Walker was absolutely sensational as the murderous title character, creating a perfectly controlled facade only to let it crumble piece by piece as Bateman became more and more detached from reality. How this actor failed to score a Tony nomination is beyond me, but it is one of the great oversights of the 2016 awards season. Combine Walker's excellence with stunning set and projection design, pitch perfect satire of 80s consumerism (embodied to perfection by Morgan Weed's delightfully shallow Courtney), and a pulsating electronic score by Duncan Sheik and you have one of the most memorable musicals of the year. A show that deliberately pushed so many buttons was always facing an uphill battle towards commercial success, but this wonderfully inventive show has all the makings of a cult hit that will be discovered and loved by theatre aficionados for years to come.

6) Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Josh Groban and the Broadway cast of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

Honestly, I would have loved to rank this as the best show of the year, as I did the Off-Broadway production in 2013. Unfortunately, the Broadway transfer of Dave Malloy's 19th century Russian fantasia Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 isn't quite as magical in its bigger home, but it remains one of the most jaw-droppingly inventive musicals of the decade. Once again director Rachel Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien have created an immersive world for this sung-through tale of intrigue and seduction to take place in, utilizing every available inch of the heavily renovated Imperial Theatre to further the illusion of being in a different time and place. The score is a dizzying collection of seemingly disparate elements, effortless interwoven by Malloy to create something wholly original and unlike anything to grace the Broadway stage. The performances are all quite good, including recording superstar Josh Groban in his Broadway debut. Perhaps most exciting of all is the fact that such innovation is being rewarded not just with critical praise but packed houses, which will hopefully encourage even more musical experimentation in the future.

Be sure to check back at the end of the week for my Top 5 Shows of 2016!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Let's Talk About Sex (18th Century French Sex)

Review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber in the Donmar Warehouse revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses

There aren't many plays like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the highly verbal and erotic drama currently being revived at the Booth Theatre. Period costumes and flowery language help elevate this tale of calculated seduction in 18th century France, making a script where virtually every scene is about sex seem like one of the classiest plays around. And while there are some interesting ideas to be found hiding underneath the deliciously decadent dialogue, this import from London's Donmar Warehouse ultimately feels like more style than substance despite some truly compelling performances.

Playwright Christopher Hampton's 1987 drama - probably best known as the basis of the Oscar-winning film Dangerous Liaisons - centers around ex-lovers Le Marquis de Merteuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont, wealthy members of Paris' elite who entertain themselves by seducing others for sport. In an act of revenge, Merteuil has asked Valmont to seduce the virginal Cecile, who has been promised to the only man to ever to break off a relationship with Merteuil before she was ready to end it. But Valmont has his sights set on Madame de Tourvel, the strictly conservative wife of an absent husband. Merteuil and Valmont agree to help manipulate both women into compromising positions, while also having their own reasons for wanting to rekindle their own relationship (she seems to actually love Valmont, while he seems mostly interested in the sex).

It's a complex web of motivations which seem even more alien given the use of French titles in place of actual names, but Hampton's plotting is razor sharp and provides everything an attentive audience member needs to follow the action. It also helps to view the play with the assumption that practically every line of dialogue is intended as a double entendre, many of them dressed up by the playwright's wonderfully verbose dialogue. The characters may be French, but their command of the English language makes listening to them speak entertainment unto itself. If there is any fault to be found with Hampton's script, it's that he places the story's climax (pun very much intended) at the end of a rather long first act, which makes Act II feel more scattershot and less impactful by comparison.

The performances range from serviceable to very good indeed, with the divide being split almost entirely down gender lines. Tony-winner Janet McTeer is entrancing as Le Marquis de Merteuil, an incredibly complex and modern woman struggling against the social confines of her gender. McTeer's understanding of the power of stillness makes her an almost regal presence, with her expressive eyes conveying an immense amount of information behind Merteuil's carefully controlled visage. McTeer oozes sex appeal, and seeing her character turn that appeal on and off at will underscores how much Merteuil's considers her sensuality not just a source of pleasure, but a weapon. Watching McTeer peel back the various layers of her character is the most thrilling aspect of the evening, ultimately revealing a vulnerability that is quite tragic despite her sometimes monstrous actions. She's also quite funny, especially when the Marquis is forced to deal with those unable to keep up with her vast intellect, adding even more depth to a truly fascinating figure.

Liev Schreiber is more problematic as the womanizing Valmont. For an actor who has demonstrated immense sexiness in other roles, his lack of sex appeal in the role is not just disappointing but a detriment to the story. Valmont is constantly engaged in secret trysts with a whole host of characters, many of whom willing throw themselves at him, and without that kind of inescapable charisma it's difficult to comprehend exactly why everyone is so willing to bend to his every whim. Schreiber's choice to play Valmont as at least slightly intoxicated at all times doesn't help, although the decision is certainly justified by the large amount of stage business involving glasses of alcohol.

In supporting roles, Elena Kampouris provides welcome comic relief as the almost impossibly naive Cecile, and Mary Beth Peil makes the most of her limited scenes as Valmont's world weary aunt. But the true standout is Birgitte Hjort Sorensen making her Broadway debut as the intensely pious Madame de Tourvel. Sorensen's eyes and body language speak volumes, projecting an immense strength and inherent goodness that makes it appropriately difficult to watch her being seduced. You feel the pain her burgeoning attraction to Valmont causes her, and the character's eventually fate is perhaps the most moving aspect of the production.

Director Josie Rourke stages the piece with an eye towards the surreal, using highly choreographed scene changes combined with haunting original music by Michael Bruce to draw you into the bewitchingly exotic milieu. Tom Scutt's deconstructed set design, which reimagines the sprawling houses of the aristocracy as aging villas with exposed plaster and brick, further contributes to the otherworldly quality of the production. (Scutt also designed the ornate costumes.)

Those unfamiliar with Les Liaisons Dangereuses will find plenty to appreciate in this current revival, while at the same time probably becoming aware that it isn't always successful in realizing the lofty ambitions of the piece. Hampton's dialogue and his script are quite good, if a tad long by modern tastes, and this production has two truly captivating performances by Janet McTeer and Birgitte Hjort Sorensen. If only Liev Schreiber were able to match these two ladies' performances, this could be a truly electric production, rather than the entertaining but somewhat inconsequential one it is.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Great Comet Arrives

Review: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Josh Groban (r) and the company of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

After a sensational run Off-Broadway in 2013, Dave Malloy's wildly inventive, boundary pushing musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 arrives on Broadway with a production which does its best to recreate the magic of that original, supper club set run. Scenic designer Mimi Lien has gone all out in reconfiguring the spacious Imperial Theatre into something approximating the joy of her fully immersive original design, and director Rachel Chavkin uses every ounce of her seemingly boundless talent to create a fluid staging the utilizes every possible inch of the stage and the audience. And while much of the show is undeniably brilliant, there are moments where it appears Chavkin and company have become so concerned with amping the show up for Broadway they sometimes undercut the effectiveness of their storytelling.

The show adapts a mere sliver of Leo Tolstoy's epic novel War and Peace, focusing on the attempted seduction of the young, beautiful Natasha by the rakish Anatole. Natasha's betrothed is off fighting in the war, so she moves to Moscow with her godmother Marya and cousin Sonya. The gorgeous newcomer soon becomes the toast of Moscow society, eventually catching the eye of the womanizing (and married) Anatole. And what about Pierre? The nobleman, an old friend of Natasha's fiance and Anatole's brother-in-law, serves as the evening's narrator, watching his contemporaries' passions while wistfully longing to experience a similar sort of fervor.

As cheekily acknowledged in the show's "Prologue," the details of the plot can be a bit complicated to the uninitiated, but Malloy's excellent writing and Chavkin's direction do such a good job of focusing your attention that the synopsis in the program proves largely unnecessary. Through his eclectic, complex, and constantly surprising score, Malloy ensures that the mood and emotions of the story are always crystal clear even when the details of the narrative get convoluted. The score borrows from a host of influences, from traditional Russian folk songs to electronica to opera, all interwoven so seamlessly that none of them feel out of place. Malloy has made some additions to the score since the show's Off-Broadway premiere, which has pushed its runtime *just* past what it really wants to be. Calling the show bloated or self-indulgent would be too harsh, but a couple of sequences do overstay their welcome (especially the extended "Balaga" song and dance in the second act).

The cast remains largely the same as the Off-Broadway production, barring two notable exception. With original lead Phillipa Soo gone on to post-Hamilton fame, the role of Natasha is now played with winsome charm by Denee Benton. Benton expertly portrays Natasha' girlish enthusiasm and wonder as she becomes caught up in the excitement of the big city, and her handling of the character's big solo "No One Else" is exquisite. She navigates the deceptively difficult vocal demands of the role with aplomb, and despite a tendency to play the comedy a bit broad she grounds the show with her emotional honesty.

The other major new cast member, and arguably the reason this boundary pushing show was able to secure a Broadway berth at all, is multi-platinum recording star Josh Groban as Pierre. Gamely wearing a fat suit and sporting quite an impressive beard, Groban is admirably committed to telling the show's story without hijacking the narrative to make everything about him. He makes quite the accomplished Broadway debut, and if his Pierre could stand to be a tad more world-weary it is hardly detrimental to the show. Malloy has written a new song specifically tailored to show off Groban's instantly recognizable voice, which is thrillingly sung and definitely increases Pierre's presence in the show's first act.

The rest of the cast does fine work, although many of them have adopted the same tendency towards overplaying that Benton has. It's never enough to really hurt the show, and all of them are smart enough to trust in the power of stillness when it really matters, but there's a tad too much indicating as opposed to embodying emotion. The worst offender is Lucas Steele as Anatole, who becomes such a cartoonishly pompous preener it can be hard to understand why Natasha is so drawn to him. On the flip side, Brittain Ashford has only improved since originating the role of Sonya, with her quietly devastating "Sonya Alone" one of the emotional highlights of the evening. Amber Gray is a welcome fiery presence as Anatole's sister Helene, and Grace McLean's Marya is at turns both funny and frightening. McLean is particularly effective during the one-two punch of "In My House" and "A Call to Pierre," which also marks one of Malloy and Chavkin's most sustained sequences of brilliance.

Design-wise, the show is a sumptuous feast for the senses. In addition to Lien's set of gorgeous red velvet walls with gold accents, Bradley King's absolutely phenomenal lighting design is essential to the show's visual impact. King lights both the stage and the audience with laser-like precision, and all of the production's most striking images owe a huge debt to his work. Nicholas Pope's immersive sound design captures of the feeling of being in the middle of the action even for those not lucky/wealthy enough to be seated onstage, adding to the sonic landscape created by Malloy's music and orchestrations. Paloma Young's costumes for the leads are also gorgeous, although her ensemble outfits tend towards being overly busy.

Lest there be any confusion, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is an excellent work of theatre, and exactly the kind of challenging, boundary pushing production Broadway needs more of. The critiques above are nitpicks that only stand out because the rest of the show is so well done, and will likely go unnoticed by those experiencing the show for the first time. But those who saw and loved the Off-Broadway incarnation may be a tad disappointed that the Broadway mounting doesn't quite equal the previous production's artistic success, even though this richly detailed mounting still has plenty to offer.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Deep Beneath the City, Lives are "In Transit"

Review: In Transit

The cast of In Transit.

While musical theatre has always been a collaborative art form, seeing four credited writers on the new a cappella musical In Transit does raise the fear that too many cooks will spoil the proverbial broth. Thankfully, like the artful vocal arrangements that permeate the show, the varied sensibilities of the show's writing team seamlessly blend into a harmonious whole, creating a vibrant and exciting tapestry that mimics the hustle and bustle of the New York City subway system.

In Transit follows the interconnecting lives of various New Yorkers trying to find their footing in a city that can seem overwhelming and uncaring, but is also alive with an unending supply of hopes and dreams. There's Jane, the 30-ish actress working a temp job while still pursing her big break. And Nate, an ex-finance guy who has gone from the lavish excesses of Wall Street to struggling to make ends meet. Trent and Steven are a loving gay couple trying to figure out how to break the happy news of their engagement to Trent's conservative mother. And poor Ali is struggling to move on with her life after being dumped by the guy she relocated across the country for.

Anyone who has been young in New York will instantly recognize these people, connecting with their plights in ways that may be uncomfortably real at times. Creators Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth - who jointly share the book, music, and lyric credits - imbue each character with recognizable foibles and that peculiar mix of gumption and slight delusion necessary to survive in the Big Apple. The network of connections between the characters (Trent is Jane's agent, who begins dating Nate, who is Ali's brother) never feels forced, especially since the real New York is a city of equally convoluted relationships. You get the distinct impression that every character in the show is based on either a member of the writing team or one of their close friends, lending everyone a truthfulness that is refreshing in a sometimes stilted medium. These characters are neither living out Cinderella-style fantasies nor Shakespearean tragedies, but a charming blend of big and small victories and defeats that defines city life.

The show's book is heavy on NYC references, giving it a charming specificity which may also limit its appeal. Even among New Yorkers, more recent city transplants might not understand the special place Dr. Zizmor holds in long-time residents' hearts, or exactly why Trent and Steven are busy on the last Sunday in June. But even if the specifics confuse the tourists that have become Broadway's lifeblood, the character's emotions are universal and remain crystal clear throughout. For a show written by four people, everything feels remarkably of the same voice, with more unity and cohesion than some shows with writing teams half the size. The intermissionless 100 minutes does feel a tad long, and the narration provided by a subway denizen known only as Boxman seems extraneous, but overall In Transit is solidly constructed from beginning to end.

The a cappella score is similarly impressive, covering a wide range of musical styles and genres while maintaining a cohesive sound. Deke Sharon, the prolific a cappella arranger most famous for his work on the Pitch Perfect films, perhaps plays things a tad too safe with his choices, but there is a fullness to his work which really helps the score sing. The songs are well written, catchy, and expertly convey the uncertainty but growing maturity of your late twenties/early thirties.

The cast is brimming with talent, producing a cadre of fine performances with nary a clunker in the bunch. Margo Seibert is positively winsome as Jane, who is slowly realizing her big break may never come but also refuses to let the pressures of the real world totally snuff out her showbiz dreams. Justin Guarini and Telly Leung are both quite affecting as Trent and Steven respectively, with Guarini's late in the game performance of the song "Choosing Not to Know" perhaps the show's most touching moment. James Snyder takes the least sympathetic character of the bunch, obnoxious Wall Street broker Nate, and believably humbles him throughout the evening as he struggles to get back on his feet. Erin Mackey is charmingly neurotic as Ali, and big-voiced Moya Angela makes quite the impression in multiple roles, particularly during her rousing rendition of "A Little Friendly Advice," which will have you cheering even if the song's sentiment seems designed to make you uncomfortable.

Everything is kinetically staged by three-time Tony-winner Kathleen Marshall, whose choreographic background helps keep all the bodies moving in interesting ways even if the amount of pure dance is minimal. She makes excellent use of Donyale Werle's subway platform set, which is bisected by a conveyor belt which doubles as the subway train and a handy way to move the various set pieces on and off the stage. Everything is gorgeously lit by Donald Holder, and while the contemporary setting doesn't give costume designer Clint Ramos much chance to show off he does manage to sneak in a gloriously whimsical dress made entirely from Metrocards.

One hopes that the Great White Way can continue to support shows like In Transit, which in its own way manages to be somewhat revolutionary in both form and subject matter. There are plenty of shows about idealistic youths pursuing their dreams, and perhaps even more about disillusioned forty and fifty-somethings, but In Transit tackles the often underrepresented period between those two dramatic goldmines. Solidly constructed, lovingly staged, and expertly performed, In Transit is the kind of delightful mid-sized musical Broadway could use more of.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Welcome to the 60s

Review: Hairspray Live

The cast of Hairspray Live, led by Maddie Baillio (center)

When NBC announced The Sound of Music Live would premiere on December 5th, 2013, no one was sure what to expect from a contemporary company resurrecting a long dead entertainment format. The resulting telecast wasn't particularly well liked (I maintain it isn't as bad as many people claim), but it was a ratings smash that guaranteed a follow-up. 2014 brought Peter Pan Live, a much better production of a much worse show, while 2015 gave us the often charming but structurally bizarre The Wiz Live. 

Then early this year, Fox's attempt to blatantly cash in on this live musical craze shockingly produced the legitimately wonderful Grease Live, all the more impressive considering it was the network's first attempt at the format. Not wanting to be outdone, NBC doubled down by picking a legitimately great musical comedy in the Tony-winning Hairspray, and smartly (some would say shamelessly) aped Grease Live's biggest innovations: the use of a studio backlot and a live studio audience. Hairspray Live is fittingly NBC's most entertaining live musical to date, although it doesn't quite have the focus or technical precision of Fox's venture.

For those unfamiliar with the original John Waters film, the Broadway musical adaptation, or the 2007 musical film, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a bighearted and full-figured girl in 1960s Baltimore. Tracy manages to score a spot dancing on her favorite TV program, the Corny Collins Show, much to the chagrin of the show's produce Velma von Tussle and her daughter, Amber. But Tracy soon finds herself drawn to a higher calling as she fights against the racial discrimination of the TV station, all while wooing its resident heartthrob Link Larkin. Cached within the candy colored sets and 1960's nostalgia is a powerful and unfortunately still timely message about fighting racism and bigotry, which lends this feel good fable a huge amount of relevance in the current political climate.

One thing that is readily apparent watching Hairspray Live is what a truly great musical it is. The score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman is one of the finest collections of showtunes from the past 20 years, combining supremely catchy hooks with deft lyrics and harmonic complexity. The showstopping numbers just keep coming, and while the book (adapted for television by Harvey Fierstein) doesn't have quite enough room for both the large number of subplots and jokes, it's so much fun you rarely care. Next to The Sound of Music, this is the sturdiest musical to be mounted on live TV, and that solid construction goes a long way towards keeping everything entertaining.

Hairspray Live is also incredibly well cast, utilizing a combination of marquee names and relative unknowns to create a delightful ensemble of quirky characters. Newcomer Maddie Baillo is charming as Tracy, although an understandable amount of nerves seem to hamper her for the first 15 minutes. Harvey Fierstein recreates his Tony-winning role as Tracy's mother Edna, and it is a treat to watch this veteran musical comedy performer reprise one of his most iconic roles. Martin Short comes across as slightly manic playing Tracy's father Wilbur, but its easy to forgive the excesses of such a giving performance from a such seasoned comic.

Pop singer Ariana Grande throws herself into the role of Tracy's best friend Penny, and while she doesn't quite nail the part's comic timing her earnestness is infectious (and as expected, she can really wail). Ephraim Sykes is supremely confident and charming as Seaweed J. Stubbs, the black dancer responsible for opening Tracy's eyes to the need for a fully integrated Corny Collins Show. And while Dancing with the Stars alum Derek Hough is suitable smooth as the show's host, Disney Channel star Garrett Clayton falls flat as Link. Clayton exhibits exhibiting zero charisma or chemistry with any of his costars, and that lack of star power probably explains why the number "Ladies Choice" was taken from Link and given to Hough, who uses it to really show off his dance skills.

As the villain of the piece, Kristin Chenoweth shines playing ex-beauty queen and unapologetic racist Velma von Tussle. A former pageant girl herself, Chenoweth brings every ounce of her comic might and singing prowess to the role, chewing the scenery in the best way possible during her standout "Miss Baltimore Crabs." Dove Cameron, another Disney Channel star, is also wonderful as Chenoweth's daughter, showcasing an appropriate mean girl vibe and surprisingly strong singing chops. And while she has a relatively minor role, Andrea Martin is hilarious as always as Penny's conservative mother Prudy. (The presence of Chenoweth, Martin, and Fierstein convinced the producers to include the excellent "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now," a number from the stage show that was cut from the film.)

The true standout of the evening, however, is Jennifer Hudson as Seaweed's mother, Motormouth Maybelle. The Oscar and Grammy-winner doesn't appear until almost halfway through the evening, and her entrance is the jolt of energy the show needs just as it's beginning to flag. Hudson has always been more of a personality than an actress, but her particular brand of sass is exactly what the role calls for, and she subsequently knocks it out of the park. She sounds phenomenal during her first number, so much so that you don't even mind that she is far to svelte to be singing about the joys of being "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful." And her rendition of the power ballad "I Know Where I've Been" late in the second half is simply outstanding, the showstopping highlight of the evening.

With so much talent on display, it's doubly disappointing that the camerawork rarely offers a good view of the action. While cutting between multiple cameras during a live broadcast cannot be easy - especially when the actors are singing and dancing through multiple sets on a sprawling studio backlot - one would expect NBC to have figured out a better way to do it by now, especially since Hairspray Live's director Kenny Leon helmed last year's musical outing as well. The continuous quick cuts often detract from Jerry Mitchell's slickly polished and energetic dance routines, as well as obscuring much of the first class scenery chewing being done by supporting players like Chenoweth. The camera often arrives on a moment either slightly too soon or too late, which combined with the overly dark lighting makes it difficult to really see what's going on.

Overall, Hairspray Live is a highly enjoyable affair, and easily the best overall live musical production to come out of NBC. But four years in it still doesn't feel like the network has entirely nailed the format, which is both disappointing and frustrating. These live musicals are a worthy pursuit for the network, and I honestly hope they continue to be annual events. Hairspray is definitely a move in the right direction, but there's still room for improvement.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Welcome to Falsettoland

Review: Falsettos

The cast of Falsettos, one of the most hotly anticipated musicals of the fall season.

Alternatively messy and engaging, the first Broadway revival of William Finn and James Lapine's Falsettos highlights the core strengths and weaknesses of the piece in sometimes unexpected ways. Originally premiering on Broadway in 1992, the show is composed of two one act musicals (which debuted Off-Broadway in 1981 and 1990 respectively) that chart the growth of gay protagonist Marvin's unorthodox family over the course of two years. While some of the narrative specifics are deeply tied to the late '70s/early '80s setting, this production thankfully proves the show's core themes of love, family, and identity are universal and still relevant despite the huge advances in gay rights and the advent of marriage equality. Unfortunately, this production also highlights how the William Finn who wrote March of the Falsettos, the basis for Act I, is a far inferior writer to the William Finn who wrote Falsettoland, the basis for Act II.

In Act I, we are introduced to Marvin, who has left his ex-wife Trina and their son Jason to live with his male lover, Whizzer. The breakup of Marvin's traditional family unit has left all three in various states of distress, leading each to seek the help of Mendel, a therapist with questionable professional ethics who ultimately becomes involved with Trina. The second act moves the action forward two years and sees everyone obsessing over the planning of Jason's upcoming bar mitzvah, while also introducing the specter of the AIDS crisis.

Act I proves to be a rather disjointed affair, more of an impressionistic character study than a coherent narrative. The young Finn has yet to refine his signature off-kilter sensibility, which comes across as manic here and lacks the thematic coherence which connects his later flights of fancy. Musically the writing isn't anywhere near as complex or interesting as Finn's later work, and as a result both the performers and director James Lapine (who also wrote the book) seem slightly adrift as they struggle to sell the material. The songs don't build the way you want them to, and Lapine attempts to compensate for this lack of emotional momentum by having the performers constantly rearrange the pieces of David Rockwell's jenga cube of a set. Layer onto this Spencer Liff's awkwardly flailing choreography - which often hinders the performer's ability to enunciate their lyrics - and the first half of Falsettos becomes an exhaustively busy journey with characters that aren't particularly likable or compelling.

Act II is a much richer and more rewarding experience, as it's clear that in the nine years between writing March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland Finn vastly matured as a songwriter and storyteller. Centering the act on Jason's impending bar mitzvah gives Finn and Lapine a stronger foundation to build their characters' quirky behavior around, and Finn becomes much more adept at tempering his characters' off-putting neuroses with humanizing qualities. Even with the introduction of two additional characters - Cordelia and Dr. Charlotte, the "lesbians next door" - everyone feels more nuanced and alive in the second half, and the show does a better job of balancing its wry cynicism with deeply felt emotion. With stronger writing to work with, Lapine and the cast are able to relax; the busy choreography is all but abandoned, and Lapine's staging is less self-consciously showy. The two halves are integrated enough that it would rob Act II of some of its impact to completely throw out Act I, but the jump in quality is pronounced.

The best unifying element of this revival is the strength of its cast, all of whom range from good to great. As Marvin, Christian Borle abandons the scenery chewing that has defined his last two Broadway outings to deliver a more nuanced, believable characterization. Unfortunately, the first half of the show really highlights Marvin's self-serving qualities, something you wish Borle was able to undercut with some tenderness to make him a more likable protagonist. The second act gives Borle a lot more opportunity to show different sides of Marvin, and ultimately your heart breaks with him during the show's final scene (which also features the most striking image of Lapine's staging).

Andrew Rannells is a competent foil as Whizzer, although you wish the show afforded him more of a chance to show off his comedic chops. Brandon Uranowitz brings much appreciated authenticity to his portrayal of Mendel, and young Anthony Rosenthal's innate charm makes the temperamental Jason feel like a real preteen rather than an adult author's caricature of one. Tracie Thoms and Betsy Wolfe are a welcomed presence as the next door neighbors, with Thoms notably in very fine voice throughout.

But the cast's biggest standout is Stephanie J. Block, back on Broadway for the first time since her Tony-nominated turn in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. As Trina, Block blossoms into the most compellingly drawn and engaging character in the show, to the point where she often feels like the lead in what is ostensibly Marvin's show. Block is certainly its emotional center, which makes her effortless delivery of "I'm Breaking Down," one of the most broadly comedic songs in the show, all the more impressive. Block offers a fascinating peak beneath Trina's determinedly perfect facade, showing us a woman not wholly prepared to deal with the curveballs life has given her and yet soldiering on anyway. It is a marvelously accomplished performance which is endlessly watchable and yet never overstated.

Overall, there is both good and bad to be found in Falsettos, and it's unfortunate that the less successful elements are concentrated in the first half. By the end of the night, Falsettos proves to be an engaging and even moving portrait of an imperfect yet loving family, with the talented cast doing much to smooth over the rough patches at the beginning of the show. When the show stops being concerned with novelty and showiness, it truly sings, illustrating how the trials and tribulations of love and family are the same no matter what your sexual orientation.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Old-Fashioned Comfort

Review: Holiday Inn

Corbin Bleu, Lora Lee Gayer, and Bryce Pinkham lead the cast of Holiday Inn at Studio 54. Not clearly pictured: fabulous Easter bonnets!

Holiday Inn is a curious concoction of a show. Pointedly subtitled The New Irving Berlin Musical, this old-fashioned musical comedy has never been seen onstage before but is adapted from a relatively well known 1940s movie musical. That Golden Age Hollywood pedigree proves both a blessing and a hindrance for the show, which is a refreshing throwback to the musicals of yesteryear that also highlights some of the storytelling shortcomings of the era. But those who can look past the plot contrivances and focus on the joyously staged musical numbers will find plenty to love in Roundabout Theatre Company's latest Broadway production, one of their rare forays into the world of "original" musicals.

The titular Holiday Inn is a converted farmhouse that only hosts guests on holidays, giving patrons a one night only musical extravaganza themed to the date's festivities. It is operated by Jim Hardy, a former entertainer and songwriter who initially wanted to give up show business but hatched the idea as a way to pay the bills after a failed attempt at farming. Joining him on this endeavor are his best friend, famed dancer Ted Hanover, and local schoolteacher Linda Mason, who herself once had dreams of performing.

The biggest problem with Holiday Inn's new book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge is that it takes an inordinately long time to set all this up. The creation of the Holiday Inn feels like the inciting incident of the story, but doesn't occur until at least 45 minutes into the show. The time before then is spent attempting to develop the characters and their backstory, which is admirable and yet misguided for this type of breezy musical comedy. The entertaining yet awkwardly slotted production numbers of the first half hour seem to suggest the bookwriters also don't trust their characters to hold the audience's attention, attempting to keep the energy up with multiple big dance sequences set to Irving Berlin's timeless tunes.

As with many musicals from the 1940s and 50s, the plot of Holiday Inn is secondary to the musical numbers and doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. The tension mostly stems from Jim Hardy's stubborn selfishness, and yet we are obviously meant to empathize with him as the kindhearted everyman. Many character actions are obviously motivated by the need to set up the next musical number, with several secondary characters disappearing and reappearing as needed with little explanation. The show's attempts at more weighty emotional stakes also fall flat, as there is never any real question about how the love triangle between the three leads will turn out. And yet it feels unfair to judge Holiday Inn too harshly for these structural faults, as it has no pretensions of being Shakespeare (or to use a more appropriate musical theatre reference, Sondheim).

In fact, the incredibly engaging cast and cavalcade of top notch production numbers override any narrative misgivings one might have. Bryce Pinkham brings the same easygoing charm to Jim Hardy as he did to the rakish Monty Navarro in the Tony-winning A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Corbin Bleu proves to be a consummate song and dance man, endowing Ted Hanover with charisma and star quality to spare. Lora Lee Gayer exhibits a refreshingly modern, self assured take on the classic ingenue archetype, while also managing to sneak in some subtly hilarious bits of sardonic humor. And Megan Lawrence is a reliably hilarious standout as Louise, the inn's caretaker and Jim Hardy's confidante.

But the real stars of Holiday Inn are choreographer Denis Jones' glittery musical numbers, sharply executed with an abundance of wit and charm. Expertly danced by one of the most appealing ensembles on Broadway, Jones' dances cover a wide array of period-appropriate styles and moods, with just enough modern razzle dazzle thrown in to hold the interest of contemporary audiences. Jones makes particularly clever use of the ensemble women during Ted's "You're Easy to Dance With" at the top of Act II, and stages a rousing patriotic spectacle for the inn's Fourth of July spectacular (including a fantastic tap showcase for Bleu). Most impressively, he has created a showstopper in the truest sense of the word for "Shaking the Blues Away," a glorious Christmas-themed extravaganza that sees Lawrence's Louise leading the entire ensemble in an athletic, multi-part tap marathon which culminates in some truly jaw dropping tricks involving a lot of garland. The number brings the house down and practically justifies Holiday Inn's existence on its own.

The show's holiday pastiches are greatly helped by Alejo Vietti's non-stop parade of themed costumes. Whether Vietti has the ensemble decked out in Thanksgiving themed leotards with accompanying turkey tails, red-white-and-blue striped nautical outfits, or the most glorious Easter bonnets seen on Broadway in quite some time, the costumes never look less than stunning. The production is also blessed with one of the most elaborate sets in Roundabout's history courtesy of Anna Louizos, all lovingly lit by Jeff Croiter. And bookwriter Gordon Greenberg pulls double duty as the production's director, keeping everything moving at a pace fast enough that you don't have time to focus on the structural flaws without ever having the show feel rushed.

In a world increasingly rife with political and social turmoil, it's nice to have a lighthearted musical like Holiday Inn around to keep the mood festive. Irving Berlin's timeless melodies reaffirm his position as one of the great American songwriters, and form the backbone to a series of wonderfully entertaining production numbers choreographed by Denis Jones. The hardworking, immensely appealing cast wins you over even when their material is less than stellar, and only the most curmudgeonly on audience members won't find at least something to enjoy. Like most actual holidays, the deeper feelings behind Holiday Inn may get glossed over in favor of festive spectacle, but that's part of the appeal.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Most Anticipated Shows of Fall 2016

It's hard to believe, but it is already mid-September, which means that the 2016-2017 Broadway season is about to get started in earnest. This fall sees 15 plays and musicals debuting on the Great White Way, and while I am a firm believer that there is an audience for every Broadway show, certain productions obviously appeal more to my tastes than others. So here, in no particular order, are the 5 shows I am most excited to see this fall:


Christian Borle, Stephanie J. Block, and Andrew Rannells will be taking on the leads in the Broadway revival of William Finn's Falsettos.
I will admit that a lot of my excitement for Falsettos stems from the fact everyone else is so excited. I'm not at all familiar with William Finn's breakthrough Broadway musical, so I don't share the enthusiasm of folks who grew up listening to the cast album. In fact, I'm actually not the biggest fan of Finn's work, having only truly enjoyed his oddball, semi-autobiographical Off-Broadway gem A New Brain. I also have major reservations about Christian Borle in the lead role of Marvin, as I have found his past two Broadway performances insanely irritating and full of selfishly bad acting habits.

That said, I *adore* both Stephanie J. Block and Andrew Rannells, who are playing Marvin's ex-wife and his current boyfriend respectively. And as a gay man living in New York City, I find myself more and more interested in what the gay experience was like for previous generations. The fact that Falsettos resonates so strongly with so many gay men also piques my curiosity, so I'm hoping this is a production that causes me to reevaluate my feelings about both William Finn and Christian Borle as artists.

Preview begin September 29th, Opening Night October 27th

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Recording star Josh Groban makes his Broadway debut in the highly anticipated transfer of the groundbreaking Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is, quite simply, one of the most innovative, exciting new musicals of the past decade. I absolutely adored the Off-Broadway production of David Malloy's genre-bending pop opera, having seen the show 3 times and naming it the single best piece of theatre I saw in 2013. I'm absolutely thrilled that it will reach a wider audience through its Broadway transfer, and sincerely hope the show is a runaway success which encourages more experimental musicals to make the leap to Broadway.

I cannot wait to see how director Rachel Chavkin has reconceptualized her immersive, in the round staging to work in a more traditional theatrical setting. I also cannot wait to see what newcomer Denee Benton does with the title role, which introduced the world to the incomparable talents of Phillipa Soo before she shot to stardom in a little musical called Hamilton. (Fun fact: Soo's work in Natasha directly led to her casting in the Broadway blockbuster, as Lin-Manuel Miranda offered her the role of Eliza Hamilton after being floored by her performance as Natasha). This is probably the show I am most excited about for the fall.

Previews begin October 18th, Opening Night November 14th

In Transit
In Transit looks to make history as the first a capella musical on the Great White Way.

I'm not quite sure what In Transit will actually look like, which is part of what has me excited to see it. An a capella musical about the lives of contemporary New Yorkers set during their daily subway commute, this show is being performed in the round at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre. I have a large amount of respect for director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, who has produced some of the most inventively staged musical numbers of the past two decades. I am also highly intrigued by the fact that Oscar-winning Frozen cowriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez will be making her Broadway debut with this piece along with 3 other first-time composer/lyricist/bookwriters. The show could end up being an unwieldy mess, but the show has ambition, something Broadway could always use more of.

Previews begin November 10th, Opening Night December 11th

Dear Evan Hansen

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's first rate Dear Evan Hansen will premiere at Broadway's Music Box Theatre this fall.

Along with Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812, this is the show I'm most excited about for the fall season. A wholly original musical from the same songwriting team behind the surprisingly endearing A Christmas Story, Dear Evan Hansen was already a Broadway caliber production when I saw it at Second Stage earlier this year. The music is gorgeous, the book is solid, and the performances are top notch, including award worthy work from Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones as the titular Evan Hansen and his mother, respectively. In a world with more and more film adaptations and corporate-minded Broadway shows, Evan Hansen is a beacon of light that will not only restore your faith in the Broadway musical as an art form, but make you excited for what's next. I can't wait for more people to get the chance to experience it.

Previews begin November 14th, Opening Night December 4th

The Present

Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett makes her long-awaited Broadway debut in The Present, a new adaptation of a little-seen Chekov play.

Two words: Cate Blanchett. As far as I'm concerned, the two-time Oscar-winner is one of the most gifted actresses around, instantly raising the prestige level of any project she's attached to. I can't wait to see her bring her magnetic presence and dynamic acting style to this new adaptation of the lesser known Chekov play Platonov, and the fact that this marks Blanchett's long-awaited Broadway debut makes the production all the more buzz-worthy. I do worry that the show itself will prove a bit esoteric for my tastes, but the prospect of seeing Blanchett work her magic live overrides any trepidation I might have.

Previews begin December 17th, Opening Night January 8th

Those are my most anticipated shows of the fall season; let me know yours in the comments!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

2016 Tony Award Predictions: Best Play and Musical

This is it. Without question the two most coveted awards in any given Broadway season are the Tonys for Best Play and Best Musical. Why? In addition to the validation they provide, no other awards have such a measurable and immediate effect on a show's financial fortunes and future life. Winning Best Musical a couple years back turned A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder from a struggling show into a bonafide hit, one which has since turned a profit and is currently touring the country. A win in either of the below categories also greatly increases interest in any potential tours and regional productions, which is where a lot of the shows make the majority of their money.

Both races have pretty clear front runners at this point, but I will still use my patented combination of personal opinion and industry buzz to do my best to predict the winners. And since the Tonys are not infallible (in no way is The Music Man a better show than West Side Story, which it beat in the Best Musical race of 1958), if I disagree with the likely winner I will be sure to say so in the comments.

Warning: Occasional snark and plenty of speculation to follow.

Best Play

The ensemble of The Humans, one of the rare Broadway plays to open without a major star to help drive ticket sales.

Nominees: Eclipsed, The Father, The Humans, King Charles III

Fun fact about this year's Tony-nominated playwrights: all are making their Broadway debuts, and all are under 40 years old. Whoever wins will be starting their Broadway career on quite a high, which is certain to make for some extra emotional soundbites throughout the night. 

The general consensus is that Stephen Karam's The Humans will be the big winner here, a sentiment that's difficult to argue against. Karam's work has been acclaimed since his first Off-Broadway play as part of Roundabout Underground, a program specifically designed to groom up and coming playwrights, and although relatively young Karam is already quite respected among the New York theatrical community. The Humans was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year, increasing its profile and chances at the big award.

But I wouldn't completely rule out Eclipsed, an expertly crafted show that arrived just as the topic of diversity in entertainment reached a fever pitch. Written, directed, and starring women of color, the harrowing Liberian Civil War drama is a shining example of what can happen when people of different backgrounds are allowed to create theatre. I personally don't think it will manage to overtake The Humans, but it certainly has a better chance than The Father (which has primarily been lauded for Frank Langella's performance) or the long-closed King Charles III.

Will & Should Win: The Humans

Best Musical

Hamilton, a little show no one has heard of, looks poised to become this year's Tony-winning Best Musical

Nominees: Bright Star, Hamilton, School of Rock, Shuffle Along, Waitress

Let's be honest, there's really nothing to discuss here. Hamilton has had this award in the bag since it announced plans for a Broadway transfers last spring. And ignoring all the hype surrounding the cultural juggernaut, I must say the show earns this and every other award it has won by virtue of being one of the smartest, tightest pieces of musical theatre writing of the past 20 years. The show's much discussed rap and hip hop score isn't just good in the context of Broadway; it stands with some of the best of the music industry, as evidence by the huge number of musical celebrities that have seen and enjoyed the production and the cast album's unprecedented rise to the top of the Billboard rap charts. And given the huge amount of material the show has to cover (the complete life of one of our country's Founding Fathers), the narrative's ability to remain crystal clear while still providing endless texture and enough depth to reward repeated viewings is all the more impressive.

I think the biggest question is how the Best Musical nominations (and accompanying telecast performances) affect the other shows in this category. School of Rock and Waitress don't appear to need much help, with both having sold extremely well since opening. Shuffle Along is certainly an ambitious piece of musical theatre, and the fact that it has been selling so well and achieved such critical acclaim makes it appear the history based musical has a long life ahead of it. The show that could use a boost the most is the struggling Bright Star, which has been very forthcoming about the financial investments its high profile writers have made to keep the show afloat through the Tony broadcast. Hopefully a solid musical performance during the ceremony will boost the show's ticket sales enough to keep it open through the summer.

Will & Should Win: Hamilton

And that concludes my predictions for the 2016 Tony Awards! Tonight we'll find out how well or poorly I did, and check back early next week for my thoughts on the results and this Broadway season in general. Until then, feel free to agree or disagree with my predictions in the comments, and check out the links below for the rest of my Tony coverage.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

2016 Tony Award Predictions: Revival

The 2016 Tony Awards will be handed out in just over 24 hours, and my annual predictions have finally reached the production categories. These are the biggest awards of the night, as a win in one of these categories can have a massive effect on a show's box office fortunes. Shows that were struggling to find audiences prior to the Tony Awards often become sold out hits after winning, and while it cannot be proven I'd wager that most shows which win Best Revival run longer than they would have otherwise (unless the winner was already closed when the awards are handed out).

As always, I will use a combination of gut feelings and industry buzz to predict the most likely winners in each category. And if I disagree with the likely winner, I will be sure to point out which show I think is more deserving of Broadway's highest honor in my comments.

Warning: Occasional snark and plenty of speculation to follow.

Best Revival of a Play

Mark Strong and the cast of A View from the Bridge

Nominees: Blackbird, The Crucible, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Noises Off, A View from the Bridge

There are some very solid productions in this category, but I have trouble imagining the majority of them actually winning. While well reviewed, I think the subject matter of Blackbird (a victim of child molestation confronting the man who abused her 15 years later) is off-putting to enough voters that they will shy away from voting it Best Revival. And while The Crucible has been doing well with both critics and audiences, it is clearly the lesser of this season's two Arthur Miller revivals in most people's minds.

I absolutely adored Noises Off, and if the show was still running I think it would be a real contender to win. Anyone who has attempted comedy knows how hard it is, and the ensemble of this revival pulled off the show's physical comedy and quirky ensemble work effortlessly. But Noised Off closed back in March, being replaced at the American Airlines Theatre by the much weightier Long Day's Journey Into Night. I personally found Noises Off to be the more successful production, but if a Roundabout play wins this category it will likely be Night, which just feels like a more important and award-worthy play. 

Ultimately though, I think director Ivo van Hove's avant garde production of A View from the Bridge will take this prize. Despite being closed for months, it is a production that absolutely wowed the industry this past winter thanks to its daring directorial concept and design approach. The production was so fresh and new that many critics were taken by surprise by plot points and moments of stage business that have always been in the oft-revived show. This is a production I suspect will be remembered for years to come, and will win both on its own merits and as a way to honor Ivo van Hove's impressive year of work.

Will Win: A View from the Bridge
Should Win: Noises Off

Best Revival of a Musical

Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti share a picture-perfect embrace during Roundabout's standout She Loves Me.

This is an outstanding category, as a convincing case could be made for any one of these shows taking home the Best Musical Revival prize. Of the four, I'd say Fiddler is the "weakest," but even then it has a towering performance by Danny Burstein and a freshly illuminating take on well-known material to its credit. It is also currently running, which probably makes it more competitive than Spring Awakening despite the latter being a much more interesting and artistically daring endeavor. Unlike some, I am not enamored with Spring Awakening as a show, but I did love Deaf West's endlessly fascinating production, which incorporated both spoken English and American Sign Language into the performance. I know a lot of industry folks were deeply moved by Awakening, and if any closed production could manage to triumph over three currently running shows it would probably be this one.

But The Color Purple and She Loves Me are both exceptional, and the current front runners. Working in The Color Purple's favor is its completely reconceived approach to the material and a sensational, likely Tony-winning performance by leading lady Cynthia Erivo. This staging caused a lot of critics to reassess The Color Purple as a piece of theatrical writing after dismissing the original production as overwrought, the hallmark of a good revival. But I do have some reservations about a couple of John Doyle's directorial choices and several of the supporting performances, while I struggle to find even one negative thing to say about the absolutely exquisite She Loves Me. Roundabouts sparkling revival is pretty much perfect, a gem of a musical romance that is one of the most transporting evenings in the theatre I've had all year. Heading into Tony season, The Color Purple was the clear favorite in this category, and may well still win, but She Loves Me has been steadily gaining steam to the point where I honestly think it will emerge as one of the happiest surprises of the night.

Will & Should Win: She Loves Me

Agree or disagree? Let me know! And don't forget to check out the rest of my 2016 Tony coverage below.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

2016 Tony Award Predictions: Best Actress

The Tony Awards are almost here, and although I'm *slightly* behind on my prediction articles I am determined to get the rest of them out before Broadway's big night. It's time to tackle the last of the acting races, Best Actress in a Play and Best Actress in a Musical.

As always, I will use a combination of personal experience and popular opinion to determine who is most likely to walk away a winner Sunday night. And should the person most likely to win not match who I think is more deserving to win, I will be sure to point it out in my analysis.

Warning: Occasional snark and plenty of speculation to follow.

Best Actress in a Play

Jessica Lange in Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Nominees: Jessica Lange, Long Day's Journey Into Night; Laurie Metcalf, Misery; Lupita Nyong'o, Eclipsed; Sophie Okonedo, The Crucible; Michelle Williams, Blackbird

An eclectic mix of performances are represented in this year's Best Actress in a Play category, although it looks increasingly likely that Oscar and Emmy-winner Jessica Lange will end June 12th one step closer to a coveted EGOT (that's an Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony sweep for those of you who don't know). While I personally found the way Lange was directed to be problematic, there's no denying that her morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone is often a force of nature. It helps that the role is also one of the all-time great acting challenges in American drama, and that the currently running Long Day's Journey Into Night is the most recent of all the nominated productions.

I can't really imagine a scenario where one of the other actresses manages to wrest this award away from Lange. Metcalf was probably the only saving grace of the critically lambasted Misery, but I suspect most Tony voters have long since forgotten that Stephen King adaptation. Sophie Okonedo managed one of the most surprising Tony wins in recent memory when she won a Featured Actress Tony for A Raisin in the Sun two years ago, but I don't think the English actress will manage such an unexpected victory this time around. And while Lupita Nyong'o and Michelle Williams both earned strong notices in Eclipsed and Blackbird respectively, it doesn't appear that they inspire the same kind of passion among voters as Lange does.

Will Win: Jessica Lange, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Should Win: Lupita Nyong'o, Eclipsed

Best Actress in a Musical

Cynthia Erivo is here to stay with her star-making performance in The Color Purple.

Nominees: Laura Benanti, She Loves Me; Carmen Cusack, Bright Star; Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple; Jessie Mueller, Waitress; Phillipa Soo, Hamilton

Let's be honest: this award is probably already being engraved with Cynthia Erivo's name. She is simply sensational as the much maligned Miss Celie in John Doyle's stripped down version of The Color Purple, giving the kind of diva performance that is the stuff of theatrical legend. Everyone I have talked to, from theatre geeks to those who went to see The Color Purple primarily for Jennifer Hudson, has been absolutely floored by Erivo's powerhouse performance and roof-rattling voice. And when was the last time an actress routinely commanded a mid-show standing ovation the way Erivo does during her 11 o'clock anthem "I'm Here?" I'd say not since Patti LuPone's "Rose's Turn" in the 2008 Gypsy, which I consider the single greatest musical theatre performance I have ever seen.

The other actresses are all incredibly talented, and in another year would be fiercely competitive. Laura Benanti is perfection in She Loves Me, with the role of perfumerie clerk Amalia Balash seemingly tailor made for her comedic chops and golden soprano. Phillipa Soo immediately impressed me during her Off-Broadway debut in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, and is equally amazing as the emotional rock upon which Hamilton is built. I haven't seen Jessie Mueller in Waitress, but I have yet to see the Tony-winner give a bad performance, and by all accounts Carmen Cusack is one of the best things about this season's Little Show That Could, Bright Star. Yet Erivo has the combination of talent and incandescent star wattage that only comes about once in a blue moon, and will surely be awarded Broadway's highest honor because of it. (I mean, just listen to this performance from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and tell me you don't want to give Erivo every award imaginable.)

Do you think this year's Best Actress races are as locked down as I do, or do you expect someone else's name to be called Sunday night? Let me know in the comments, and don't miss out on the rest of my 2016 Tony coverage below: