I recently returned from a business trip to New York City, a place that continues to thrill, inspire, and entertain like no other. I recognize that the Big Apple is a sprawling metropolis with five diverse boroughs and some great parks too. But although I have enjoyed exploring Park Slope, Morningside Heights, and everything in between, the Theatre District is the true centre of my New York. And it appears I am not the only one focused on the Great White Way, what with the 68th annual Tony Awards — hosted by Hugh Jackman — less than two months away (June 8 – save the date!).
Lucky for me, my business trip — the joys of supervising some amazing students at the National Model United Nations — left me with ample time to soak up what for me is easily the most exciting season of theatre since my periodic artistic pilgrimages along the Great White Way began in 2007.
I cannot recall a time when I could see a different show between 42nd and 54th streets each night for weeks on end and still not exhaust the possibilities for being dazzled and moved by the power of live theatre. Indeed in recent trips I found myself spending more time at Lincoln Center — standing room at the Metropolitan Opera, to be precise — than anywhere else. But this time I was more than occupied in that tacky, dusty Theater District. In a period of about ten days I was able to see a number of performances that will stay with me for a while yet.
Of course I could not catch everything — and I unfortunately missed Denzel Washington’s turn in A Raisin in the Sun (the Obamas’ recent choice for their night in the city), Idina Menzel in If/Then, and Bryan Cranston in All the Way (a much-hyped play about the Civil Rights Act) — but I saw enough to recognize that what is unfolding along the Great White Way this season is pretty spectacular.
Most of all, this is a season where bona fide theatre talents get to shine, producers finally realizing that while Hollywood stars can sell tickets, only a few have what it takes to sustain a gruelling schedule of eight performances per week.
Cabaret (Studio 54): While Broadway elites have characterized the Roundabout Theatre Company’s decision to remount its legendary revival of Cabaret as a cash-grab, I was grateful for the chance to see John Kander and Fred Ebb’s gritty musical set in 1920s Berlin. The production includes songs like “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time,” which were written specifically for Liza Minnelli in the movie version. Film star Michelle Williams makes a lively Sally Bowles in these big songs as well as in her more intimate scenes with love interest Cliff (Bill Heck). Her Sally is equal parts showgirl and self-effacing anachronism, her ebullience increasingly out of place in a changing Berlin grappling with the rise of Nazism.
Alan Cumming, acclaimed for his portrayal of the Emcee, was ill with the flu and the performance I saw featured understudy Leeds Hill — indeed this was his first and thus far only go at the iconic role. Danny Burstein, the veteran actor who portrays the Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz, called Hill’s debut a “star is born” moment. A young actor, his Emcee began with a certain freshness that broadened the arc of his character development. By the time he sings the sardonic “I Don’t Care Much,” the Kit Kat Club is no longer a carefree place where “life is beautiful.” Cabaret remains shocking at times and so completely musically satisfying. Cash-cow or not, see this ‘revival of a revival’ for Williams’ eye-catching Broadway debut.
Les Misérables (Imperial Theatre): Although I love Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil’s score as much as the rest of the planet — and indeed I was fortunate to sing much of it in a series of concerts with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in 2012 — I probably would not have paid top dollar for Cameron Mackintosh’s new production were it not for a family connection with Caissie Levy, the gifted actress who plays Fantine. I am extremely glad I saw this gripping and breathlessly-paced new Les Miz, largely for the opportunity to watch Iranian-Canadian actor Ramin Karimloo bring down the house with his muscular voice and sensitive portrayal of Jean Valjean.
Will Swenson, who was a spirited Berger in the recent revival of Hair, is an excellent, snarling Javert, and in great voice too. Nikki M. James and Andy Mientus struggle with the vocal lines of Eponine and Marius, though the latter has lovely chemistry with the sweet-voiced Samantha Hill, a Canadian actress who was hired on short notice to play Cosette on Broadway. Kyle Scatliffe is a booming Enjolras. Les Mis also boasts a remarkable ensemble, and everyone has moments to shine as they surmount the barricades. There’s nothing quite like a singing French Revolution.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (Circle in the Square theater): I’m an Audra McDonald devotee. I would gladly listen to her sing the phonebook — actually, she recently musicalized Yahoo! Answers to hilarious effect — yet no one will ever accuse the five-time Tony Award winner of phoning it in. Audra is generous with her audiences, bringing remarkable energy and full-bodied voice to her performances. Her gripping performance in “Porgy and Bess” in 2011-12 brought Gershwin’s masterpiece to a new generation of audiences. Her latest project sees her interpreting — no, becoming — “Lady Day,” the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, as she gets through her final concert in 1959 at a small bar in Philadelphia.
Lanie Robertson’s succinct 90-minute play uncovers the personal struggles Ms. Holiday faced throughout her life, including brushes with racism as an African-American performing for White audiences. The Circle in the Square Theater has been outfitted as a jazz club, with premium ticket holders seated at cafe tables ready to be serenaded by the Broadway Legend. But she never emerges, for once McDonald makes her entrance she is unquestionably Billie Holiday. Not a hint of her physicality or — most impressively — her voice is Audra. It is a character transformation that elicits audible gasps in the audience as she begins to sing “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” accompanied by the excellent Shelton Becton on piano. Other songs include “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit,” all extremely well received by the audience. But this is no Audra concert. This is a touching play about a trailblazing American musical giant. Don’t miss this.
The Bridges of Madison County (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre): As a longstanding admirer of Jason Robert Brown’s music for the stage — The Last Five Years, Songs for a New World, and Parade have quickly become musical theatre classics — I could not miss the rare opportunity to hear a new ‘JRB’ musical live on Broadway. Bridges is based on the admittedly trashy novel by Robert James Waller about Francesca, an Italian war bride (Kelli O’Hara in gorgeous voice) who is swept off her feet by Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale in a breakthrough performance, his first in a Broadway musical), a dashing National Geographic photographer who comes to Winterset, Iowa to photograph the town’s famous covered bridges.
Francesca’s small-minded husband (a suitably brusque Hunter Foster) and the kids are away for a weekend at the fair, leaving Francesca and Robert with nothing to do but fall slowly and sinfully in love over brandy. It’s all quite silly, but this is Brown’s most beautiful and accessible score to date. With the duet, “One Second & a Million Miles,” O’Hara and Pasquale reveal themselves to be the most vocally powerful — and steamy — duo currently treading the boards.
Bullets Over Broadway (St. James Theatre): I was likely one of the only attendees who had not seen the Woody Allen film on which this brand new musical is based. Nevertheless, I found the show deliciously entertaining, with superb direction and choreography by Susan Stroman (The Producers). Bullets stars Zach Braff (in a very respectable Broadway debut) as David Shayne, a timid playwright who lands his first Broadway mounting thanks to a commitment from mafia boss Nick Valenti (played by, who else, Vincent Pastore of The Sopranos). The catch is that Shayne must somehow find room to showcase the ‘talents’ of Olive Neal (Heléne Yorke, who sets the comedic bar high early on with a raunchy staging of “The Hot Dog Song”). Shayne is initially protective of his play but this all flies to the wind when he casts legendary diva Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie in a big-voiced performance) in the leading role.
It is not long before Cheech (Nick Cordero, superb) — one of Valenti’s hit men — comes up with ideas of his own to make Shayne’s play more of an audience pleaser. For Cheech, Broadway is a piece of cake — if an actress is uncooperative, just drive her “Up a Lazy River,” as Cordero sings, and shoot her. It would not be a Stroman show without a talented dance chorus costumed by the legendary William Ivey Long, and indeed it is an astonishing male tap number — “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do” — that stops the show in Act 1. As you may have realized, Bullets has no original score, but rather ingeniously incorporates jazz songs of the Roaring Twenties. Rising Broadway star Betsy Wolfe is excellent as Ellen, Shayne’s unfulfilled girlfriend, and gets to showcase her big brassy belt in “I’ve Found a New Baby.” Bullets doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it is an unmissable romp.
Act One (Lincoln Centre Theater): Like Bullets, Act One tells the story of an earnest playwright, Moss Hart (Santino Fontana, marvellous), who will stop at nothing to make it big on Broadway. But here, there are no mafia bosses to kill off difficult stakeholders. Set in New York between 1914 and 1930, the audience watches Hart work assiduously to produce his first play, leading him to collaborate with the eccentric veteran, George S. Kaufman (Tony Shalhoub, in an extraordinary portrayal that captures the playwright’s tics and insecurities). As his star grows, Hart becomes the breadwinner for his impoverished Jewish immigrant family, anchored by his Aunt Kate (played by Andrea Martin, back onstage after winning a Tony for Pippin, in which she dangled from a trapeze).
James Lapine has adapted Hart’s bestselling memoir of the same name to create an often touching play, but one that, like Hart’s early drafts, could have benefited from some shrewd cuts. Yet the nearly three-hour play moves quite fluidly thanks to an excellent ensemble cast and a marvellous multi-story set that rotates on a turntable, inviting the audience to witness Moss’ transformation from a poor boy in a tiny apartment to a rising star setting up shop in the Kaufman’s opulent home (Martin also plays Kaufman’s wife, Beatrice). Lapine, who wrote the book for Sunday in the Park with George with Stephen Sondheim — knows something about the life changing experience of being a young artist collaborating with a legend. No doubt Act One benefits from Lapine’s personal experience in this regard. But what ultimately makes this a moving evening is Fontana’s ardent portrayal of Moss, particularly when he declares, “I want a life in this!” — referring of course to the theatre. In a way all of us want a piece of the magic.
The Threepenny Opera (Linda Gross Theater): This one is off-Broadway, but features a starry cast including Laura Osnes (“Cinderella”) in gorgeous voice as Polly Peachum as well as veteran actor F. Murray Abraham as the vengeful Mr. Peachum. Martha Clarke’s Atlantic Theater Company production of the Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht masterpiece is heavy on stylized movement — and nudity. But fans of Weill’s score, which includes “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” — should not miss the chance to hear it performed so crisply.
In addition to these wonderful evenings of theatre, I was privileged to attend MCC Theater’s Miscast gala, which raises funds for the company’s successful theatre programming for youth at risk. The highlight of the gala is a revue wherein Broadway stars perform songs from roles in which they would never (never!) be cast. Highlights included Jeremy Jordan singing “Let It Go” and Raúl Esparza channeling Fanny Brice in “My Man.” Finally, I tremendously enjoyed my first experience with the Encores! series, taking in a performance of The Most Happy Fella, Frank Loesser’s joyous and often operatic tale of a fruit vendor (Shuler Hensley) who falls in love with a waitress (Laura Benanti) but almost loses her heart to the strapping young Joe (Cheyenne Jackson). The performance was akin to musical theatre perfection, and I invite you to see my full review.
Don’t listen to the naysayers — and certainly not to the grumpy New York Times theatre critics. This is a joyous time to be a fan of musical theatre, and one would be foolish to underestimate its enduring power to move and inspire audiences young and old. I live in awe of all those professionals — onstage and behind the scenes — who put it all together, and it is an honour to pay homage to the rich legacy of musical theatre — which in many ways parallels American life and history — through my own performing