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.