An Act of God

May 28, 2015: If God were really as adorable and funny as Jim Parsons in the new Broadway show “An Act of God,” perhaps many more of us would be minding our morals, rapaciously atoning for our sins and generally doing unto others as we would like to be done unto, all in the hopes of a breezy welcome at the pearly gates. For now — praise be! — in a history-making metaphysical transformation, Mr. Parsons has been temporarily inhabited by the spirit of the Lord. Yes, God himself is in residence at Studio 54, of all sin-haunted places, holding forth on matter of faith and folly to peals of raucous laughter, in the body of the endearing star of “The Big Bang Theory.” Turns out that while many people have railed darkly against the Almighty’s mordant sense of humor over the years — we learn that God himself thinks the Book of Job is a hoot, although I doubt Job quite appreciated the joke — nobody knew quite how funny the fellow really is. Delivering a new and improved set of Commandments, as transcribed by the man we might call the Moses de nos jours, David Javerbaum, who wrote the show and the book that inspired it, God is really killing it up there. How funny is the guy? He’s Jon Stewart funny, plus Stephen Colbert funny. (Mr. Javerbaum has written for both.) More obviously, it might be said that Mr. Parsons as Mr. Javerbaum’s tell-it-like-it-is God is, yes, divinely funny.



The Visit

April 23, 2015: When Chita Rivera steps solemnly to the edge of the stage in the opening scene of “The Visit,” she sweeps the audience with a gaze that could freeze over hell. Yet a quickening warmth spreads through the Lyceum Theater, where this macabre, long-gestating Kander and Ebb musical opened on Thursday night. The woman who stands so regally before us may appear as glacial as Siberia. But longtime theatergoers know that beneath the frost, this ice queen is hot stuff. Based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s fabular 1956 drama of greed and vengeance, “The Visit” arrives with lots of baggage. That includes the ominous black valises that figure prominently in the show’s set and the many obstacles and alterations this musical has experienced on a 13-year-long journey to Broadway. But it’s the history that the 82-year-old Ms. Rivera carries and the expertise with which she deploys it that keep the chill off this elegant dirge of a production, directed by John Doyle. Portraying a woman with a storied past, she brings with her the legacy of more than six decades as a Broadway musical star. That career has had its spectacular peaks (the creation of classic roles in the original “West Side Story” and “Chicago”) and valleys (the doomed “Merlin”). If “The Visit,” which also stars Roger Rees and features a tartly didactic book by Terrence McNally, occupies a sort of landscaped plateau in this terrain, its leading lady continues to tower. “I’m unkillable,” Ms. Rivera’s character says, and a line uttered with throwaway bravado stops the show.


BROADWAY REVIEW: Something Rotten!

Something Rotten!

April 22, 2015: Unchecked enthusiasm is not always an asset in musical comedy, despite the genre’s reputation for wholesale peppiness. “Something Rotten!,” the rambunctious new show that opened on Wednesday night at the St. James Theater, dances dangerously on the line between tireless and tedious, and winds up collapsing into the second camp. If that sounds exhausting, the large cast onstage betrays no signs of flagging. Clad in what are surely very heavy Elizabethan costumes, and performing what is essentially the same determined showstopper again and again, the ensemble members in this Broadway-does-the-Renaissance frolic remain as wired as Adderall-popping sophomores during exam week. “Sophomoric” is the right adjective for “Something Rotten!,” and presumably its creators wouldn’t have it any other way. Conceived by the Kirkpatrick brothers, Wayne and Karey, who wrote the score, with a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, this production wallows in the puerile puns, giggly double-entendres, lip-smacking bad taste and goofy pastiche numbers often found in college revues. All those traits, I should add, have also been in evidence in two of the most successful Broadway musicals of recent years: “The Book of Mormon” and Mel Brooks’s “The Producers.” Yet how restrained and elegant those shows seem next to “Something Rotten!,” directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who provided the same services for “Mormon.” I never thought I’d be saying this, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the “South Park” collaborators who came up with “Mormon”) and Mr. Brooks turn out to be masters of the art of knowing when to stop.



Doctor Zhivago

April 21, 2015: “Doctor Zhivago,” the endless Boris Pasternak novel familiar to most of us from the endless David Lean movie, has been resurrected for dramatic purposes once again, as a musical that opened at the Broadway Theater on Tuesday night. The verdict: Um, is it over yet? Hold your fire, Russophiles and cinephiles. Obviously many revere the book, first published in Italy in 1957 after being banned by the authorities in the Soviet Union, where it wasn’t published until decades later. The 1965 movie, starring a luminous Julie Christie and a pair of moist, doggy eyes otherwise known as Omar Sharif, is considered by many a classic in Lean’s late, sumptuously pictorial style. But after slogging through both recently, I remain staunch in my opinion that the book is among the most drearily indigestible of so-called modern classics, and the movie rich in visual atmosphere but dramatically flaccid. My reaction to the musical, with a book by Michael Weller, music by Lucy Simon and lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers, doesn’t derive from the usual sorrowful observations about the inferiority of the stage version to a beloved book or movie. No, the dismay here has to do with the musical itself, a turgid throwback to the British invasion of Broadway in the 1980s, and more specifically to the epic-romantic style of the Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil shows “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon.” Of course, those musicals, too, have innumerable admirers. If full-throated love ballads and thundering militaristic anthems, baggy plots, highly expositional dialogue and doomed romances are your cup of tea, fire up the samovar and give the show a try. But be warned: Even as it shares similarities with those long-running hits, “Doctor Zhivago” is inferior in most respects to the musicals it is emulating.



Living on Love

April 20, 2015: Making her Broadway debut in “Living on Love,” the lumpy little comedy that opened on Monday night at the Longacre Theater, Renée Fleming seems like far too nice a woman to be playing a diva. That sounds irrational, I know, since Ms. Fleming, the great soprano, is one of the most celebrated opera stars in the world. But “diva,” in that case, is a job description and a tribute to the professional heights to which Ms. Fleming has ascended. In “Living on Love,” which is written by Joe DiPietro and directed by Kathleen Marshall, Ms. Fleming is required to be a diva in the more pejorative sense, as when you call somebody out for melodramatic or selfish behavior by saying, “Oh, don’t be such a diva.” Raquel De Angelis, the opera star portrayed here by Ms. Fleming, is such a diva and then some — a capricious, tantrum-throwing egomaniac who doesn’t even step into her own living room without making sure she has the proper lighting, entrance music and drop-dead outfit. Ms. Fleming, who knows from ball gowns, wears such attire with grace. The accompanying attitude, however, isn’t a natural fit. And when someone says Raquel reminds him of Eleanor Roosevelt (albeit a beautiful and sensual version of that redoubtable first lady), the description isn’t as incongruous as intended.



Fun Home

April 19, 2015: “Fun Home” knows where you live. Granted, it’s unlikely that many details of your childhood exactly resemble those of the narrator of this extraordinary musical, which pumps oxygenating fresh air into the cultural recycling center that is Broadway. Yet this impeccably shaded portrait of a girl and her father, which opened on Sunday night at the Circle in the Square Theater, occupies the place where we all grew up, and will never be able to leave. That’s the shifting landscape where our parents, whether living or dead, will always reign as the most familiar and elusive people we will ever encounter. Adapted from Alison Bechdel’s fine graphic novel of a memoir, with an incisive book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and heart-gripping music by Jeanine Tesori, “Fun Home” might be described as a universal detective story. Set in three ages of one woman’s life (embodied by three perfectly matched, first-rate actresses), it tries to solve the sort of classic mystery that keeps grown-ups in analysis for decades: Who are these strange people who made me? The focus of that question here is an especially knotty case. Meet Bruce (Michael Cerveris), who teaches high school English, restores old houses and runs a funeral home in a small Pennsylvania town. As the husband of Helen (Judy Kuhn) and a father of three, Bruce is as divided personally as he is professionally, a fastidious upholder of the perfect-family facade who picks up young men (all played by Joel Perez) on the down low.



The King and I

April 16, 2015: A big, scrupulously detailed 19th-century ship glides toward the audience in the opening moments of Bartlett Sher’s resplendent production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” which opened on Thursday night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. It’s an impressive sight, worthy of every “oooh” it elicits. But its presence wouldn’t count for nearly as much if it weren’t carrying such precious cargo. That’s the determined, hopeful, anxious woman in a hoop skirt who runs onto the deck, toward the ship’s prow, and into our field of vision as if in cinematic close-up. Her name is Anna Leonowens, and she is played, you lucky theatergoers, by Kelli O’Hara. One look at her face, agleam with intelligence and apprehension, and you suspect you’re in the hands of a guide you can trust. Then she starts to sing. And even if the familiar song she delivers (“I Whistle a Happy Tune”) usually makes you cringe, your confidence in her — and the Lincoln Center Theater production in which she appears — starts to soar. It will stay contentedly aloft for the next 2 hours and 50 minutes. As you probably already know, Mrs. Leonowens’s task in this 1951 musical is to educate a passel of royal Siamese pupils in the ways of the West. The job of Ms. O’Hara — and that of Mr. Sher and Ken Watanabe, the commanding Japanese film star who portrays the King of Siam — is to educate 21st-century audiences in the enduring and affecting power of a colonialist-minded musical that, by rights, should probably embarrass us in the age of political correctness.


BROADWAY REVIEW: Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland

April 15, 2015: The first entrance applause occurs before even the overture begins. Riotous clapping is occasioned when a bright point of light travels over the ceiling and the curtain of the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York, where the push-button, button-pushing musical “Finding Neverland” opened on Wednesday night. This little light, you see, is pretty much guaranteed to elicit a Pavlovian response from anyone familiar with the story of “Peter Pan” in its various incarnations, which surely includes everyone who shelled out the big bucks for this show. Said light equals Tinker Bell, the temperamental fairy who requires your applause to stay alive. Clap if you believe in brand names. Directed by Diane Paulus — with the guidance of Harvey Weinstein, its chief producer — “Finding Neverland” is filled with such triggers. The most brazen, perhaps, comes when an English actor in a pub asks an American, “Do they say ‘cheers’ where you come from, mate?” The simple query sets the audience aroar. That’s because the man playing the American happens to be Kelsey Grammer, who was a regular on the long-running sitcom “Cheers.” Neither Mr. Grammer nor the show’s leading man, Matthew Morrison (of the television series “Glee”), appear wholly invested in their performances. But that’s O.K. Their mere presences do most of the work for them. As with many a Broadway musical these days, “Finding Neverland” — which features a book by James Graham and sticky soft-pop power ballads by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy — is based on a popular film. That would be the 2004 biopic about the playwright J. M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, which starred Johnny Depp and for which Mr. Weinstein was an executive producer.


BROADWAY REVIEW: It Shoulda Been You

It Shoulda Been You

April 14, 2015: As the father of the bride might put it, “Oy.” “It Shoulda Been You,” which opened on Tuesday night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, confirms the sad truth that weddings — those supposed celebrations of everlasting love — bring out the worst in some people. That includes cynics, show-offs, heavy drinkers, envious have-nots and, it would seem, the creators of American musicals. The last big wedding-themed show I remember on Broadway was “A Catered Affair” (2008), a singing adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1956 movie that turned the sentimental tale of a blue-collar bride into a dishwater-gray dirge. “It Shoulda Been You” takes the opposite tack. It’s so aggressively bubbly it gives you the hiccups. Or do I mean acid reflux? In any case, it’s not easy to swallow. Featuring a book and lyrics by Brian Hargrove, with music by Barbara Anselmi, this crumbly meringue of a production would seem to be hoping to capitalize on the success of reality television shows about brides behaving badly, as well as cinematic laugh-fests like “Bridesmaids.” But this show, directed by the actor David Hyde Pierce and starring Tyne Daly and Harriet Harris as battling future mothers-in-law, also looks further back for inspiration.


BROADWAY REVIEW: An American in Paris

An American in Paris

April 12, 2015: The city of light is ablaze with movement in the rhapsodic new stage adaptation of “An American in Paris” that opened at the Palace Theater on Sunday, directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, a gifted luminary of the ballet world. This gorgeously danced — and just plain gorgeous — production pays loving tribute to the 1951 movie, to the marriage of music and movement, and to cherished notions about romance that have been a defining element of the American musical theater practically since its inception. Just about everything in this happily dance-drunk show moves with a spring in its step, as if the newly liberated Paris after World War II were an enchanted place in which the laws of gravity no longer applied. Even the elegant buildings on the grand boulevards appear to take flight. Musicals based on classic movies, or not-so-classic movies, have become a familiar staple on Broadway. Just last week, “Gigi,” another show based on an Oscar-winning MGM movie set in Paris — also featuring a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner — opened a few blocks away. Dance, on the other hand, has become the wallflower at the Broadway prom in recent decades, which makes Mr. Wheeldon’s triumph all the sweeter. Still, unlike the shows directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp — “Movin’ Out” being the most successful — “An American in Paris” is very much a traditional Broadway musical, with a book by the playwright Craig Lucas that amplifies the movie’s thin story line, mostly to witty and vivifying effect. And while its two radiant leading performers, Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, are ballet dancers by profession, they also sing (quite well) and deliver dialogue (more than quite well).