Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review of "Matilda"

My expectations for the new Broadway musical, Matilda, were quite high what with all its pre-opening hype and pedigree of having swept London’s Olivier Awards (the equivalent of our Tony Awards) in 2012.  Fortunately, except for a bit of tedium in Act II, Matilda delivers an enchanting and magical theatrical experience to audiences both young and old. 

Based on the Roald Dahl children’s book, Matilda tells the story of young Matilda Wormwood, a precocious and highly intelligent young girl born into a family of lower class slackers.  Dad is a wheeler-dealer always looking for an easy score through one of his shady deals.  Mom, a loud-mouthed spendthrift, is only concerned about money and her next dance competition with partner Rudolfo.  Their perpetually dazed son, Michael, rounds out the dysfunctional household.  Matilda is continuously ignored and verbally assaulted by her uncaring and unresponsive parents especially in her desire to learn and read books.  Her parents treat her predilection for reading as if the Ebola virus had invaded their home.  For her mother, father, and brother the Telly (television) is the sole source of entertainment and information.  Matilda’s salvation is the local library where, in addition to consuming every book in sight, weaves a magical story of escapism for the librarian, Mrs. Phelps, as well as for her own sanity.

Finally of age to attend elementary school she is thrown into a nightmarish, crumbing institution, Crunchem Hall, overseen by the menacing and formidable principal, Mrs. Trunchbull who regards children as insignificant gnats.  Matlida’s liberation is her teacher, the sweet Miss Honey, who recognizes the young child’s intelligence and need to belong.  Together they eventually overcome the obstacles in both their lives to live, as they saying goes, happily ever after.

For a musical like Matilda to succeed the show needs a young girl with fortitude, presence and spunk.   This production doesn’t have one, but four juveniles who, in rotation during the week, play the adolescent Matilda.  On the night I saw the show Oona Laurence was in the lead and she was fearless throughout the production—singing, dancing, and performing like a certified professional.  It was rather extraordinary for such as small lass to anchor such a large-scale musical.

The real star of the show is Bertie Carvel as the monstrous headmistress, Miss Trunchbull.  He comes across as a combination of Richard III and Gru from the Despicable Me movie.  He is vindictive, loathsome, and horrid to the students under his watch.  Carvel doesn’t walk or strut across the stage, but rather glides.  He is the spark to Matilda.  His presence on stage is always great fun even as he trashes everyone and everything in his sight.

Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita, as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, are vapid, self-centered irritants.  Their more over-the-top performances accentuate the plight of poor Matilda, trying to fit in, belong, and feel wanted.  Lauren Ward, a Sweet Polly Purebread type, meek at first finds her resolve towards the musical’s end.

Upon entering the Shubert Theatre, audience members are treated to Set Designer Rob Howell’s visually spellbinding set of colorful, vibrant scrabble-like tiles affixed to the walls of the stage from floor to ceiling.  They evoke a world of learning, both magical yet ominous.  His sets in the latter half of the show perfectly capture the Dickensian-themed nature of Crunchem Hall.

Roald Dahl’s story is dark and cheerless, with comedic thrusts.  Book writer Dennis Kelly faithfully adapts Dahl’s book to the musical theater stage.  There is whimsy, playfulness, and foreboding all wrapped up in a big Broadway musical.  Composer Tim Minchin’s score is mischievous, quirky, and very tuneful. 

The children in Choreographer Peter Darling’s large-scale production numbers come out with bursts of kinetic, nervous energy.  They almost attack the dance routines in a combative, rebellious manner.

Director Matthew Warchus always seems to have the perfect touch whether helming a comedy, drama, or a big, splashy musical.  In Matilda, he keeps the action flowing from scene to scene.  He allows his actors to shine, giving them their moment on stage as demonstrated by Bertie Carvel’s Miss Trunchbull.  I only wish he and librettist Dennis Kelly would have teased out the production a bit longer as the climatic scenes of enchantment, wonder, and comeuppance tumble out too quickly.

Matilda, family fare of a different type, settling in for a long run on Broadway.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review of "Motown - The Musical"

Caution—anyone attending a performance of the new show, Motown – the Musical, be prepared for leg cramps from unceasing foot tapping to the Motown sound. 

Motown – The Musical, the lone jukebox production of the 2012-13 season, is rollicking, exuberant fun as a cavalcade of actors portrays Motown artists from the label’s beginnings through the early 1980’s.  The musical, like the long-running Jersey Boys, is built upon a wisp of a narrative thread.  Here, it chronicle’s how Berry Gordy built Motown records into a recording powerhouse during the first 25 years of its existence.  The book of the show, written by Gordy, serves not as a full-fledged history lesson, but more as a way to introduce the singers and musical groups that became part of the Motown family over this time-span.  Here’s Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Jackson 5, and many more.  They perform dozens of songs—some in their entirety, others short snippets—that we still listen and dance to today.

The show starts off with The Four Tops and Temptations in a flashy sing-off as they rehearse for the Motown 25 Years TV Special.  The stars of Motown past assemble for the gala, but Berry Gordy is in his home study, agitated and hurt, refusing to attend.  He harbors many hard feelings towards the performers he discovered and nurtured.  Many had deserted the label over the years for bigger contracts elsewhere.  Why should be attend even though it is about his legacy?  From there, the musical transports us back 25 years as Gordy begins his dream of building his own record company.  The show ends as it began—at the Motown 25 Year TV Special.

Gordy, as book writer, doesn’t pull his punches.  He comes off as madly driven to succeed, someone who can identify and cultivate talent, and a control freak.  The seamier side of the business is not spared as lawsuits and countersuits crop up in the latter part of the show.  But the episodic nature of the production serves, primarily, to introduce a plethora of musical numbers that leave the audience wanting more.  The songs incorporated into the show are too numerous to list.  Instead, let me focus on the actors that stood out in the show.  They include Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross.  From naïve teenager to adult superstar she truly embodied the soul of the talented diva.  Jibreel Mawry, as the young Michael Jackson, almost steals the show.  When The Jackson Five are first introduced, and Mawry begins belting out one of their hits, and putting on the moves, the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre rocks to its very foundation.  Other notables in the cast include Charl Brown as the silky smooth Smokey Robinson and Bryan Terrell Clark as the rebellious, sexy Marvin Gaye.

Brandon Victor Dixon gives a credible performance as the temperamental and intensely driven Berry Gordy.  He can be forceful, manipulative, and forgiving in the stretch of one scene. 

Motown – the Musical has an extremely large cast, which enhances the large production numbers, athletic and powerful, choreographed by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams.  While the large ensemble pieces are energetic and spirited the dance routines crafted for the various Motown artists are more satisfying.

David Korins’ sparse set design actually enhances the production, allowing us to focus on the performers.  Esosa’s costumes, on the other hand, are flamboyant, rich, and incredibly sequined. They truly give you a feel for that era’s over-the-top fashion statement.

Director Charles Randolph-Wright’s main function is to keep the storyline moving, not allowing it to bog down until the next song is presented.  He handles the assignment with aplomb, never allowing the almost three hour musical to seem heavy or unappealing.

Motown- the Musical—it will leave you with a smile on your face, some soul in your heart, and a twinkle in your toes.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review of "Kinky Boots"

At last a new musical I can wholeheartedly recommend!  Kinky Boots, based on the 2005 movie, tells the story of young Charlie Price, next in line to inherit his family’s venerable shoe factory.  Being of the modern generation the twenty-something wants nothing to do with the family business and, instead, heads to London with his fiancée to start a life in the world of marketing.  Before they can set-up house Charlie’s dad passes away and the young man is back in Northampton, England as head of Price & Sons.  Unfortunately, he quickly realizes the firm is going broke, losing out to cheap, foreign shoe imports.  A chance encounter with Lola, a drag queen, inspires Charlie to ditch the stuffy men’s footwear and to manufacture wildly flamboyant boots for the niche market of drag queens, cross dressers, and others.  He recruits Lola to design glitzy, high-heeled boots as they scurry to save Price & Sons from oblivion.  Along the way Lola deals with his own self-worth and the backlash and narrow-mindedness from the more provincial employees.  At the same time he subtly and craftily inspires the staff, including Charlie, to face their own prejudices and preconceived notions.  Throw in a muddled romance or two and you have the storyline for the show.

There are a number of reasons that make Kinky Boots work.  First, there is the score by 80’s pop icon, Cyndi Lauper.  Making her Broadway debut as a composer, Lauper ‘s songs are buoyant, feisty, yet have a real Broadway traditional feel to them.  While there are heartfelt ballads, Lauper doesn’t neglect her rock roots, serving up a healthy dose of high-energy numbers.

Playwright Harvey Fierstein won a Tony Award for writing the libretto for another cross-dressing musical, La Cage Aux Folles.  In 1983, when that show opened, drag queens prancing on the stage and the backstage love story was considered a bit risqué and daring.  Fast forward thirty years and with the advent of reality television and changing social norms Kinky Boots is now more a La Cage Aux Folles lite.  While mirroring the film’s premise, Fierstein slowly and effectively paints a portrait of two individuals—Lola and Charlie--on the surface so different, but in reality so much the same.  The book writer also knows how to pull our heartstrings and by the time the first set of kinky boots rolls off the assembly line the audience is cheering.  My one quibble with the book is the way Charlie’s fiancée, Nicola, is integrated within the plot.  Her scenes seem more like an intrusion with the flow of the story.

The acting corps is led by Billy Porter as the gutsy, lust for life drag queen, Lola.  Porter embodies his over-the-top being, but also effectively shows the pain and anguish he has dealt with all his life.  When he begins work at the shoe factory he nimbly transforms himself into his more “true-to-form,” sedate self as he seeks to balance both sides of his persona. 

While Porter can be seen as the driving force of the production Stark Sands as Charlie provides a more contemplative, matter-of-fact counterpoint to Porter’s colorful Lola.  In a sense, the ying and yang of the two give Kinky Boots a satisfying symmetry.  Sands creditably portrays Charlie as a confused young man searching for his identity and place in the world to a more take charge, knowing individual by the musical’s finale.  Other notables in the cast include Annaleigh Ashford as the lovelorn Lauren who delivers a comic gem in “The History of Wrong Guys;” and Daniel Stewart Sherman as Don, a big lug of a man who eventually overcomes his boorish mindset.

Director-Choreographer Jerry Mitchell keeps the story flowing without too many wayward passages.  The sexual nature of the musical’s premise, while a central part of the show, is presented in a more family friendly matter.  He adroitly balances the more rousing nightclub numbers with Lola and his back-up performers, The Angels, as well as the Act I closing song, “Everybody Say Yeah,” with more intimate moments such as Charlie and Lola’s plaintive “I’m Not My Father’s Son.”

Kinky Boots, a winning musical to celebrate and applaud.