Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What to See on Broadway in 2009

Back in July 2007 I put up a blog about my suggestions for what musicals to see in New York. So much has changed on the musical theater landscape since then I thought it would be time to update my list of recommendations.

I originally wrote that friends, co-workers, relatives, acquaintances seek my advice since I have seen just about every current musical now playing in New York. Since I bill myself as a hard-nosed critic, they think I know what I’m talking about. I am always happy to oblige, especially when the high cost of tickets are forcing occasional theatergoers and families to limit their excursions to the New York musical stage.

So, what are my top suggestions as of May 2009? Again, I have broken them down into five categories:

Tikes – ages 6-9
Tweens – ages 10-13
Teen – ages 14-17
Young Adults – 18+ years

When I make a recommendation it is usually with the understanding that an individual or family has not been to the Broadway stage very often. I lean towards the newer shows, but this is not a knock against some of the warhorses such as Mamma Mia and Phantom of the Opera. However, this is all an inexact science with numerous variables to consider. Is one seeking a musical comedy or more serious production? What might appeal to two or three age groups at the same time? My daughter is a mature eleven year old. What do we do about her?

I have not included such shows as Billy Elliott, Wicked, or Jersey Boys as any of the primary choices since these shows are always sold out and you would have to pay a king’s ransom to acquire decent seats. Wait a few years for their sheen to wear thin, then procure tickets. Speaking of procuring tickets, there are a number of ways to purchase theater tickets quite cheaply. You can refer to a previous blog I wrote.

Foul language is not as much of an issue as when such shows as Spring Awakening or the revival of A Chorus Line were still playing, even though the revival of Hair might cause some trepidation.

Within the listings there is considerable overlap. For example, Shrek—The Musical could enthrall everyone, from TIKES to ADULTS. The age ranges of each category can be flexible at either end of the spectrum so a TWEEN may in fact be quite comfortable in a YOUNG ADULT show. You may scratch your head about why I left a certain production off a category. For example, Chicago is not listed in the top five of any category even though it has been playing for years and continues to do well at the box office. But Chicago is getting a bit old in the tooth and there are more worthy shows to plop down your money for. Mamma Mia (great for TEENS on up) is omitted, not because it is not worthy (I thoroughly enjoyed it), but there are other shows I would see first. Finally, just because a musical is not on my lists does not mean it is undeserving of your patronage. Show that I have previously reviewed are linked to that review. Also, with new shows opening each year the rankings could change overnight. So, without further ado…drum roll please…

TIKES (6-9 years old)
Disney use to have this category all to itself, but Dreamworks, with Shrek—The Musical, has muscled their way into this group . No matter what your feelings are about Disney’s theatrical presence you have to admit they know how to deliver the goods.
1. The Lion King – Director Julie Taymor took a two-dimensional movie and turned it into a tour de force Broadway musical. The opening number is still one of the best in recent Broadway history (I won’t reveal why). Her use of puppetry brings to life the assorted characters in The Pride, inspiring awe and wonder among theatergoers, both young and old.
2. Shrek—The Musical – I enjoyed Shrek, primarily because of the all-star cast (Brian D’Arcy James, Sutton Foster, Chris Sieber). Good score, great costumes. The show is like the old Road Runner cartoons. It can be enjoyed at different levels.
3. Mary Poppins – When I saw the show there was a bevy of very young children directly in front of me. They didn’t make a peep. Enough said.
4. The Little Mermaid – I wasn’t too crazy about the show, but little ones should enjoy seeing Ariel and friends come to life. The costumes and sets, along with the score, should keep them transfixed.

TWEENS (10-13 years old)
There are a couple of shows for the older TWEENs mixed in with the TIKE choices from above.
1. Lion King – see under TIKES.
2. West Side Story – the revival has been close to selling out, but another classic which would be an excellent introduction to the musical stage. The music, Jerome Robbins choreography, and action should keep Tweens interested. Could be a stretch for them.
3. South Pacific – lush, large-scale revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Great score. Could be a stretch for them. May be hard to acquire tickets .
4. Phantom of the Opera – Like the Energizer Bunny this Andrew Lloyd Webber warhorse goes on and on and on. Very theatrical with one of Webber’s most melodic and recognizable scores. Might be a bit scary. And where else would you find a crashing chandelier.
5. Shrek—The Musical – see under TIKES.
6. Long-range planning – Billy Elliott and Wicked.

TEENS (14-17 years old)
1. Hair – One of the seminal rock musicals with another classic score. Youthful, energetic cast makes this a must see. Some language issues and nudity.
2. West Side Story – see under TWEENS.
3. In the Heights – Tony winning Best Musical. High energy, terrific choreography. Its vibrancy and pulsating rhythms ignite the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
4. South Pacific – see under TWEENS.
5. 9 to 5—The Musical – I thoroughly enjoyed the production, primarily because of the three lead actresses. All are superb. Good Dolly Parton score. Fun, pure and simple.
6. Long-range planning – Billy Elliott and Wicked.

YOUNG ADULTS (18+ years old)
1. Hair – see under TEENS.
2. West Side Story – see under TWEENS.
3. In the Heights – see under TEENS.
4. South Pacific – see under TWEENS.
5. 9 to 5—The Musical – see under TEENS.
6. Rock of Ages – retro, 1980’s power rock musical. For the classic rock crowd.
7. Long-range planning – Billy Elliott, Jersey Boys, and Wicked.

1. South Pacific – see under TWEENS.
2. West Side Story – see under TWEENS.
3. 9 to 5—The Musical – see under TEENS.
4. In the Heights – see under TEENS.
5. next to normal – I will admit I have not seen this small-scale musical, but the word-of-mouth has been great. It is more of a serious work centering on a woman with bi-polar disorder. Might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
6. Hair – see under TEENS.
7. Long-range planning – Billy Elliott, Jersey Boys, and Wicked.

Still unsure? Email me at with your specific situation and I can see what I can recommend.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Review of "Blithe Spirit"

Thank goodness for Angela Lansbury. She is really the one reason to see the revival of the Noel Coward comedy, Blithe Spirit, now on Broadway. As medium Madame Acarti, Lansbury gives a kooky, comedic, yet nuanced performance that enlivens the production whenever she sets foot on stage. It’s too bad she spent all those years in Hollywood with Murder, She Wrote. Now, I was a big fan of that television mystery series, but when I think of the twelve years she was out there instead of gracing the Broadway stage, I am very saddened.

But, I regress. Unfortunately, Blithe Spirit itself doesn’t have much else to offer. Granted, Rupert Everett and Jayne Atkinson, playing the married couple Charles and Ruth, are experienced actors, Everett more in films. They play their roles well, but the verbal repartee between the two wears thin quickly. Maybe if I had as many drinks as what the characters consumed during the show I would feel otherwise.

The major disappointment is Christine Ebersole as Elvira, the ghostly first wife of Charles, inadvertently summoned back from the ethereal world during a séance conducted by the eccentric Madame Acarti. Ebersole flits from one end of the stage to another, flapping her silky gown along the way. She creates a bit of mischief here and there for Charles, who is the only one that can see and hear her, but her hijinks become quite boring rather quickly. Sometimes, I sensed Ebersole didn’t know what to do with herself. One wonders what director Michael Blakemore, who has done outstanding work on Broadway throughout the years, was trying to accomplish.

One other bright spot in the production was Susan Louise O’Connor as the daft servant Edith. In between Coward’s non-stop, sophisticated chatter and witticisms O’Connor entertains us with silliness and a dash of slapstick.

Blithe Spirit, another golden opportunity to take in what could be another Tony winning performance by Angela Lansbury.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Review of "42nd Street" at Goodspeed Opera House

Ah, those dancing feet. Those tap dancing feet. They are just one of the many joys from the Goodspeed Opera House’s slightly uneven production of 42nd Street, now running through July 4th. I’m a sucker for great tap dancing and there is plenty of it on display in this musical comedy fable. Right at the show’s start the curtain rises, stopping midway above the stage, to reveal a gaggle of gorgeous gams hoofing it at breakneck speed. Moments later the curtain finishes its climb as we are introduced to one of the best looking and most talented ensembles I have seen at a Goodspeed production. They are young, energetic, and very eager to please.

42nd Street is the ageless story of a star is born. Young Peggy Sawyer, fresh off the bus from Allentown, PA, manages to make the chorus of the new Julian Marsh directed Broadway musical, Pretty Lady, and by show’s end gets her big break to become an overnight sensation. Kristen Martin is perfect as the naïve, doe-like, youthful Peggy Sawyer. She is attractive, can dance up a storm and has a rapturous voice. Unfortunately, her two male leads are not as well-cast. Austin Miller as juvenile lead, Billy Lawlor, is more of a poseur than actor. He plays Lawlor as a buffoon rather than a good-natured casanova. When he sings or dances he doesn’t connect with the audience which makes for a very distracting performance. James Lloyd Reynolds, as veteran director, Julian Marsh, is ruggedly handsome, but does not give us the impression of someone who has been slugging it out in the Broadway trenches for decades. He seems always in high gear, barking out his lines; there is little subtlety or shading in his portrayal. However, the supporting cast is superb led by Dale Hensley and Dorothy Stanley as the songwriting and acting team of Bert Barry and Maggie Jones. They inject a measured amount of humor and zinging one-liners into the production. Jennifer Foote is also a delight as seasoned showgirl, Ann Reilly.

One of the real gems of 42nd Street is the choreography by Rick Conant. Whether it is the soft shuffle to “Go Into Your Dance” or the high octane Act I finale of “We’re in the Money,” Conant sets up one crowd pleasing number after another. The score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin is a treasure trove of musical theater hits—“You’re Getting to be a Habit With Me,” “We’re in the Money,” “There’s a Sunny Side,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and the title number, “Forty-Second Street.” You could not ask for anything more.

Ray Roderick’s direction keeps the show taut, working well with the other members of the show’s creative team. Besides the bumps in the road with actors Miller and Reynolds, he mounts an efficient and ultimately satisfying production. Special mention should also go to costume designer, David Lawrence, for some whimsical, yet stylish outfits that hark back to the fanciful and extravagance of 1930’s stage and screen musicals.

42nd Street, shuffling along through July 4th at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Review of "Accent on Youth"

David Hyde-Pierce is a marvelous comedic actor which he has shown to great ability in Spamalot, Curtains (winning the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical) and, of course, in the long-running television program, Frasier. However, in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of the Samson Raphaelson comedy, Accent on Youth, Hyde-Pierce, playing aging playwright Stephen Gaye, inspired by love on stage, but a failure off, is rather underwhelming. The fault is not in the actor himself or the supporting cast or even the fine direction by Daniel Sullivan, but with Raphaelson’s script. More a meditation on the subject of love, the show glides through its very short Act I and then lumbers through a more substantial Act II.

David Hyde-Pierce does have some very funny scenes and his presence is always welcome on a New York stage. However, this show belongs to Charles Kimbrough as the spunky, ever-pleasing, and aged butler, Flogdell. Kimbrough, better know for his television work in Murphy Brown, demonstrates a keen sense of comic timing and movement. He is such a joy to behold. Byron Jennings is splendid as actor Frank Galloway, an older thespian enjoying spectacular success in the new Stephen Gaye drama. The rest of the cast, while fine, did not bring anything special to the production.

Accent on Youth, a trifling affair, now at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel Friedman theater on West 47th Street.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Review of "9 to 5--the Musical"

Take a memo—9 to 5, the last musical of the current New York season, is a big, splashy, feel-good production that Broadway has almost forgot how to produce. It is the perfect tonic to brighten up these difficult economic times. Based on the hit 1980 movie of the same name, the story focuses on three office secretaries who finally tire of their sexist, egotistical and all-together slimy boss. Through inadvertent happenstances they end up kidnapping the scoundrel, holding him hostage at his home, while at the same time covertly taking over office operations which drives productivity and morale through the roof.

There are a number of reasons that make 9 to 5 work. First, and foremost, are the three lead actresses—Allison Janney, as take charge office manager Violet Newstead; Stephanie Block, as the frazzled, new-to-the-work-world, Judy Bernly; and Megan Hilty as the Dolly Partonesque executive secretary, Doralee Rhodes. We like them, care about them and, most importantly, their chemistry and interplay together is unforced and genuine. All three actresses receive ample stage time and a song or two they can call their own, delivering each time they are called upon to take center stage. While both Stephanie Block and Megan Hilty have the more powerful voices, Allison Janney more than holds her own during her musical numbers. Marc Kudisch is downright despicable as boss Franklin Hart and the longtime Broadway veteran never lets up on the sleaziness factor.

The score by country legend Dolly Parton combines country with Broadway razz-ma-tazz and is wholly satisfying. The title song is reworked into an invigorating opening number that combines the kinetic choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler with the tuneful former chart topping song. Blankenbuehler’s style, exuberant and athletic, which so energized last year’s Tony winning In the Heights, is all about movement. Characters don’t just walk, but almost seem possessed by a rhythmic force as they traverse the stage.

Patricia Resnick’s book, based on her screenplay for the movie, encompasses all the highlights of the film while at the same time creatively re-engineering scenes for the stage. The extended dream sequence is a wonderful example. Director Joe Mantello, no stranger to large casts headed by strong, empowering women—think Wicked—superbly blends all the musical’s separate components into a breezy, fast-paced production. The second act does lag a trifle, but nowhere to the detriment of the show.

Scenic designer Scott Pask, as well as the rest of the creative team, have conjured up a realistic corporate office bullpen of secretaries and worker bees. Their use of rear screen projections adds some panache without being overbearing, something other Broadway shows should take heed of.

So, order more carbon paper, restock the white out, and sharpen those number two pencils, 9 to 5—the Musical should be taking out a long lease at the Marriott Marquis Theatre.