BROADWAY REVIEWS

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: Wolf Hall Parts One & Two

Wolf Hall Parts One & Two

April 9, 2015: And now let’s settle in for a really, really good gossip. The subject? The British royal family and its so-called friends. You wouldn’t believe the scandal they’re stirring up these days, with their love affairs and divorces and back-stabbing rivalries. It’s chilling (and thrilling, too — admit it) to listen to these people talk about one another, especially to the all-hearing, frozen-faced spin master at their center. Their conversation gives new resonance to that credo of cattiness, “If you can’t say anything good about someone, come sit next to me.” No, not the Windsors. They’re small-timers when it comes to digging — and flinging — the dirt. For the tastiest dish in town, you need to visit the Tudors of “Wolf Hall,” the riveting two-part theater drama that has taken up residence at the Winter Garden Theater, where it opened on Thursday night. This “Wolf Hall” is not to be confused with the BBC Two television series of the same title, currently being broadcast on PBS, nor with the Man Booker Prize-winning, best-selling novel by Hilary Mantel, on which both the series and the plays are based (along with its sequel “Bring Up the Bodies”). Those are moody, leisurely works, steeped in darkness and, in the case of the novels, swirling introspection.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: Gigi

Gigi

April 8, 2015: A shower of soap bubbles descends upon the audience at the finale of the pretty and pleasant revival of the musical “Gigi” that opened at the Neil Simon Theater on Wednesday. The gentle downpour is meant to evoke the fizz in a glass of Champagne, the delights of which have been celebrated in one of the bounciest songs from the score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. But it inadvertently brought to mind how thoroughly the musical, about a young woman being groomed for a life as a courtesan in turn-of-the-20th-century Paris, has been scrubbed of anything even remotely naughty or distasteful. In this squeaky clean version of the material, Gigi’s potential future as a demimondaine — that’s French for high-end prostitute — is alluded to in such delicately vague terms that no parent chaperoning a tween fan of the show’s star, Vanessa Hudgens, of “High School Musical” renown, will have much explaining to do after the curtain has fallen. You probably remember the most uncomfortable passage in the froufrou-bedecked 1958 film, which won a hefty nine Oscars including best picture (and which was also more treacly than the Colette story on which it was based). Recall Maurice Chevalier, playing the narrator, the suave silver fox Honoré Lachaille, singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” as he strolls through the Bois de Boulogne, eyeing young girls romping in the park.

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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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BROADWAY REVIEW: Skylight

Skylight

April 2, 2015: They are hardly a well-matched pair, this couple that has been given such transfixing life in two of the most expert stage performances you’re likely to see for many seasons. As embodied by Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy in the heart-piercing revival of David Hare’s “Skylight,” Kyra Hollis and Tom Sergeant have none of the things in common that usually make for a fine romance. In age, attitude and even metabolism, they’re separated by a forbidding gulf. And don’t get them started on politics, or economics, or even cooking. Yet as you watch Ms. Mulligan and Mr. Nighy move magnetically toward and away from each other in Stephen Daldry’s exquisitely balanced London-born production, which opened on Thursday night at the Golden Theater, you can’t help thinking that on some profound level these two were made to be together. And therein lies the tragedy. Tear-stained stories of impossible love have been a staple of theater for centuries. And Mr. Hare’s 1995 drama, his tightest and quite possibly his best, delivers big on the rueful pleasures of that genre.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: The Heidi Chronicles

The Heidi Chronicles

March 19, 2015: Do the responsibilities that come with age inevitably erode the ideals of youth? Can women achieve the most in their careers while enjoying a fully satisfying family life? Is sadness a natural — as opposed to pathological — response to the realization that life will not bring us everything we had hoped it would? These questions resonate today as strongly, and at times as painfully, as they did when Wendy Wasserstein’s most celebrated play, “The Heidi Chronicles,” stormed Broadway in 1989, going on to win the best play Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize the next year. They are being posed once again, with the same bright humor and reflective intelligence, in the vibrant revival that opened at the Music Box Theater on Thursday night, led by a softly radiant Elisabeth Moss in the title role. Ms. Moss, a superb actor who possesses an unusual ability to project innocence and smarts at the same time, inherits a role played by many since Joan Allen originated it when the play had its premiere at Playwrights Horizons Off Broadway. (I saw Mary McDonnell, one of several who succeeded Ms. Allen during the play’s long Broadway run; Jamie Lee Curtis played the role in a television movie.) Known for her demure but ambitious Peggy in “Mad Men,” Ms. Moss puts her own distinctive stamp on the part. As Heidi Holland grows from a burgeoning feminist in the 1960s to a high-achieving but emotionally fragile art historian in the 1970s and ’80s, Ms. Moss is constantly questioning both her own choices and those of the circle of friends and lovers who surround her.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: On the Twentieth Century

On the Twentieth Century

March 15, 2015: In the theater, there is overacting, which is common and painful to watch. Then there’s over-the-moon acting, which is rare and occupies its own special cloud land in heaven. I am delighted to report that this latter art is being practiced in altitudinous-high style at the American Airlines Theater, where Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher are surfing the stratosphere in “On the Twentieth Century.” Scott Ellis’s ripping, lavishly appointed revival of this 1978 musical about dueling giant egos on a train between Chicago and New York — which opened on Sunday night in a Roundabout Theater Company production — knows that when it comes to being hyperbolic, there’s no people like show people. No, not even excitable reviewers like me on the morning after a show like this one. There are so many reasons to celebrate this “On the Twentieth Century,” which features a score by Cy Coleman, with a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. For starters, it’s that rare revival of a musical that isn’t trucked out every few years, like a wedding dress routinely repurposed as prom wear. (I love “Gypsy” too, but come on, guys.)

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