BROADWAY REVIEWS

BROADWAY REVIEW: Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace

July 16, 2015: The timing is fortunate for “Amazing Grace,” a Broadway musical about the unusual life story of the man who wrote the lyrics for that classic hymn. President Obama ended his stirring eulogy for the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, a victim of last month’s gruesome killings in a South Carolina church, by singing the song, a last-minute inspiration that made for an affecting viral media moment after a year (and more) of disturbing racial violence. The hymn, which many associate with African-American culture and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, was written in the 18th century by John Newton, an Englishman who worked in the slave-trading business. Make a beeline for the Nederlander Theater, where the show, with a score by a musical theater newcomer, Christopher Smith, and a book by Mr. Smith and Arthur Giron, opened on Thursday. The peculiar story of Newton’s life forms the spine of the musical, which traces the gradual moral awakening that led to his conversion from a trafficker in human flesh to a deeply religious writer of hymns. Unfortunately, while aspects of Newton’s tale are indeed noteworthy, maybe even amazing, the musical itself unfolds as an overstuffed history lesson trimmed in melodrama, with a standard-issue romantic subplot and some dutiful attempts to explore the lives of the slaves (although the focus remains squarely and maybe a little uncomfortably on the British characters).

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BROADWAY REVIEW: Penn & Teller

Penn & Teller

July 12, 2015: Though it’s been four decades since they first teamed up, Penn and Teller are looking terribly of-the-moment these days. Never mind that their latest entertaining exercise in populist hocus-pocus — “Penn & Teller on Broadway,” which opened on Sunday night at the Marquis Theater — includes some of the oldest tricks in any conjurer’s book, including the extraction of a rabbit from a top hat and sawing a woman in half. These are the magicians, after all, who for years have been telling us not to believe in the magic they do. How appropriate that credo feels in the early 21st century, when everybody seems to be in on the joke that everybody else is a fake. Penn Jillette, left, and Teller in Times Square.Penn and Teller, Reconjured on BroadwayJUNE 17, 2015 It’s hard to hear a pop star’s hit record now without thinking of the technology that smoothed and sweetened the vocals, or to listen to a politician without imagining a team of speechwriters, or to watch special effects in an action movie without wondering about green screens. As much as we may be amused or even enthralled by such spectacles, it’s become a point of honor to know that they’re only illusions. Or, to use the delicate language of Penn and Teller, it’s all BS, a term that the audience at the Marquis yells out (in its unabbreviated form) on a cue from Penn (the stage name of Penn Jillette; Teller is always just Teller, for professional purposes). “Penn and Teller: BS” was the title of this team’s long-running series on Showtime, devoted to the exposure of professional frauds.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: An Act of God

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.

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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.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: Fun Home

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.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: The King and I

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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BROADWAY REVIEW: Hand to God

Hand to God

April 7, 2015: Stand down, Inspector Javert, vengeful foe of bread-snatchers. A more formidable villain now stalks the Broadway boards, one who makes you seem about as frightening as a French pastry. His name, Tyrone, is not the scariest handle, but he’s as ruthless as any dedicated evildoer, with a spectacularly foul mouth and a thirst for young flesh. Oh, and he’s also made of a gray sock, some felt and a fringe of fake fur. The terrible Tyrone is, in short, a hand puppet. If you imagine that to be merely a punch line, forget it. The fearsome critter, who takes possession of a troubled teenager’s left arm in Robert Askins’s darkly delightful play “Hand to God,” really inspires goose bumps as he unleashes a reign of terror on that teenager, Jason, and everyone in his orbit. But unlike the grim Javert, he’s also flat-out hilarious, spewing forth acid commentary that will turn those goose bumps into guffaws. “Hand to God” popped open on Tuesday at the Booth Theater like a cackling jack-in-the-box, scaring away (really) a couple of audience members at the performance I caught, but bringing peals of joy to most everyone else. In a Broadway season dominated by the usual fodder — musicals new and old, and a healthy serving of Important British Dramas — Mr. Askins’s black comedy about the divided human soul, previously seen in two separate Off Broadway runs, stands out as a misfit both merry and scary, and very welcome.

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