A look at 7 New York spring musicals, and a Stephen Schwartz opera
Before the Tony Awards are upon us, I wanted to talk about some of the musicals I saw in NYC this spring.
There was a tsunami of book problems this year with many of the musicals. All you have to do is go to this wonderful website – StageGrade – and read what the critics had to say, and you’ll see one thing popping up over and over again – “the book was lousy”.
If you look at the Tony nominations for Best Book of a Musical, you’ll see that two shows that closed quickly earlier in the season – Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (by Alex Timbers), and The Scottsboro Boys (by David Thompson) – both transferred from Off-Broadway and were nominated along with two shows that opened this spring: The Book of Mormon (by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone) and Sister Act (by Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane). It’s mind-boggling. I can’t remember a season where so many shows opened and closed so quickly. But – you know – I saw some wonderful performances among those musicals that needed a ‘book doctor’.
So here are my thoughts on the musicals and the opera I saw recently in NYC. You’ll notice one musical that’s absent and that’s that Mormon musical that will likely sweep the Tonys. With tickets selling for over $700 a pair on Ebay and ticket dealers’ sites, I’ll be saving up for a while to see it. I almost got to see it but some clogged arteries took over that weekend. So, when I see it I’ll talk about it in the comments at the bottom of this article, where I hope you will tell me if you agree or disagree with what I have written here.
A Minister’s Wife
I was reading the reviews today of A Minister’s Wife (based on George Bernard Shaw’s Candida) and I was glad to see that Charles Isherwood gave the show a rave in The NY Times while most of the other critics were calling it “slow and boring’, and some other things I don’t want to repeat here. But I really liked it. It’s nice – first of all – to see and hear Marc Kudisch‘s wonderful baritone ringing out in the small and intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, and to listen to composer Joshua Schmidt (The Adding Machine) and lyricist Jan Levy Tranen’s beautiful ‘new’ score being played so well by a small and talented orchestra of 4 amazing musicians. And I was so happy to get a chance to see to Bobby Steggert again – after his big success in and Ragtime and Yank! – playing the poet Eugene Marchbanks. After seeing so many ‘pop’ musicals, it was a pleasure watching the talented cast – that also included Liz Baltes, Drew Gehlingm and Kate Fry (as Candida) – in a new musical that was intelligent, thought provoking, and very adult.
Baby It’s You!
OK, it wasn’t the female Jersey Boys, but it had Beth Leavel in it and she worked her tail off playing record producer Florence Greenberg and discoverer of The Shirelles. She deserved her Tony nomination. The scenes between Florence and her obnoxious husband Bernie were excruciating but the singing by the Shirelles – Christina Sajous as the lead singer, Shirley – had a gorgeous voice as did her fellow Shirelles: Crystal Starr, Kyra Da Costa and Erica Ash. They sang the heck out of “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Soldier Boy,” “Mama Said”, “Baby It’s You and so many others. The audience wasn’t there for the story – they were there to hear and sing along with The Shirelles – and they did and had a great time. As for me, less Florence and Bernie and more Shirelles would have been nice but whenever Christina and her co-singers sang, it was a good time in the theatre. And most of all – I was so happy seeing Jahi Kearse making his Broadway debut.
Catch Me If You Can
My friend Dinah and I really liked the show and we were both shocked by the negative response it received from the critics. I knew that Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s Catch Me If You Can would be compared to Hairspray, and that’s what happens when you write the next show after having a megahit. It’s true the score was not as memorable as Hairspray, but there were some songs I liked – “Fly, Fly Away” sung with immense emotion by Kerry Butler and “Our Family Tree” sung by the very funny Linda Hart and Nick Wyman and joined by Aaron Tveit and Kerry Butler. But it was the performance of Norbert Leo Butz that stole the show and his frenetic rendition of “Don’t Break the Rules” made the audience go crazy. It stopped the show and reminded me that Norbert is one of the most talented musical theatre stars working in NYC today. He deserved his Tony nomination, but it’s going to be hard to beat the two guys from The Book of Mormon. But you never know.
The People in the Picture
This is the musical I waited for all year. Growing up with Yiddish Theatre music and listening to Holocaust survivors who were friends of the family – and some of them my Day School teachers – I expected to be totally and emotionally blown away by this musical and thanks to Donna Murphy’s emotional performance as Bubbie and Raisel, I was. It was a hard-working and beautifully sung performance.
The NYC critics complained about ‘too much schmaltz’. For a guy who consumed enough chicken schmaltz when I was a kid, I don’t mind a little schmaltz in my musicals. But for a guy who just got his arteries unclogged because he ate too much schmaltz all his life, I know that too much schmaltz can be deadly, and that was the problem for me here. Don’t force me to feel for your characters. I hate that! Sometimes the show felt like an overbaked knish.
Despite that one kvetch, I was kvelling watching some of my favorite performers on the stage: Chip Zien, Lewis J. Stadlen, Christopher Innvar, Alexander Gemignani, Louis Hobson who knows how to play doctors very well, and Nicole Parker (who I saw tear up Oz as Elphaba in Wicked.) And I loved Rachel Resheff who played Jenny – the young granddaughter. She sang so beautifully and looked like a veteran.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical
OK – the costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner are eye-popping and colorful and sheer fun, and the performance by Tony Sheldon was heart-warming (and I think he will win the Tony for it) and Nick Adams was a bundle of energy and they and Will Swenson looked great in those crazy costumes. And here again – the audience was singing along to “I Love the Nightlife”, ‘Hot Stuff” and “Like a Prayer” and other ‘pop classics’ But Priscilla never tries to be Death of a Salesman orLes Misérables. It’s there to entertain and it does a great job of doing that.
My interview with Nick Adams and J. Elaine Marcos.
A sneak preview of Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical website.
Brad Hathaway’s review of the Broadway Cast CD
This was the biggest surprise for me. I just had the best time at Sister Act. First of all, Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s score was bouncy and funny and helped the audience learn about the characters and it moved the plot along – something missing from so many of the musicals in this column. And Patina Miller was sensational as Deloris – hysterical and singing like a goddess. I think she has a great chance to win the Tony this year.
But for me, every time I hear the divine voice of Victoria Clark, I am in heaven. And Alan and Glenn wrote two wonderful songs for her – “Here Within These Walls” and “Bless Our Show” – which really showed off her gorgeous voice and perfect diction. What a brilliant move to bring in Xanadu’s Douglas Carter Beane to ‘improve’ the book. From the vocally astounding cast of Sisters to the great supporting cast, Sister Act was a revelation for me. It was habit-forming, and I can’t wait to see it again.
The concept CD was amazing. The production was not. It was confusing and I couldn’t figure out what the hell was happening in the story and some of the book choices. But I really enjoyed the talented cast who gave 300%. I just loved Karen Mason as The Queen of Hearts and her rendition of “Off With Their Heads” was hysterical, as was Jose Llana’s performance of the Salsa-esque “Go With the Flow”. And Carly Rose Sonnenclar, who played the young Chloe (who a lot of us there that night thought was Alice) was fabulous as the young daughter of Alice (Are you with me?), played by Janet Dacal who sang the heck out of Frank Wildhorn’s “Welcome to Wonderland” and the beautiful “Home” and her 11:00 number “Once More I Can See”.
The cast was great and again the book was a mess, but we will always have the great concept CD and the new Broadway Cast CD to cherish this very hare-raisingly clever score from Mr. Wildhorn.
Seance on a Wet Afternoon by Stephen Schwartz
I had been waiting a long time to see Stephen Schwartz’s operatic adaptation of the 1961 novel Seance on a Wet Afternoon by Mark McShane and the 1964 film version starring Kim Stanley as Myra Savage (changed to Foster for the operatic version) – a psychic and medium, and her weak husband Billy, played by Richard Attenborough in the film. The location for Stephen Schwartz’s version has been moved from London to San Francisco.
Arthur Foster (a very creepy Michael Kepler Meo) convinces the crazy Myra to “borrow” Adriana (Kelsey Lee Smith), the young daughter of a rich financier Mr. Clayton (Todd Wilander), and they hide her on the Foster home until Myra can use her psychic abilities and powers to rescue the child, hoping for fame and stardom. Because Arthur is deceased, Myra’s ball-less husband Billy (Kim Josephson) is the one who must carry out this crazy kidnapping, and of course, everything goes terribly and ‘gravely’ wrong. Bailey Grey played the kidnapped child – Adrianna Clayton – and sang beautifully. And then there are the wet afternoon seances that Myra has – all very creepy. Sounds perfect for the composer who gave us Wicked – don’t you think?
The New York City Opera at Lincoln Center in the David H. Kotch Theater gave Mr. Schwartz a haunting yet beautiful production filled with incredible singers and spooky special effects, and it was very entertaining. Fans of Stephen Schwartz’s theatre scores – like me – could hear snippets of melodies from Pippin, Godspell, and Wicked. And in the midst of this darkness – there was humor.
Soprano Lauren Flanigan was superb as the manipulating Myra and her aria “One Little Lie” gave me the creeps. Baritone Kim Josephson’s “When I First Knew Her” was sad and for a moment I felt sorry for Myra. But for only a second. I also loved how there was a recurring them for Arthur throughout the opera – the Scottish “My Faraway Laddie” that was played on the gramophone. Every time I heard Myra sing, “I’ll do anything to please” to Billy, chills ran up my spine. Another highlight was Melody Moore’s (Mrs. Clayton’s) heartbreaking aria “Wondrous Things” – sung after she is told her daughter is dead. Ms. Moore’s voice just soared effortlessly and her high notes were sheer beauty.
Heidi Ettinger’s multi-level set of the Foster home spun in both directions and it was cool watching ghosts appearing through the transparent walls of the home. It looked like a Victorian doll house that had the living room and kitchen on the first floor and the bedroom where the child – Adrianna – was held hostage and drugged upstairs on the second floor. And bravo to David Lander for his clever lighting that set the mood and created the rain and spooky shadows.
Watch Lauren Flanagan talk about playing Myra and highlights of the New York City Opera’s production of Seance…
Watch a video on the making of Seance on a Wet Afternoon with Stephen Schwartz.
Watch the trailer of the 1964 film Seance on a Wet Afternoon.
Now on to the Tonys!
In a few weeks, Richard Seff and I will continue our annual tradition of discussing the Broadway theatre season, and will take a crack at predicting this year’s Tony winners.
How about a little nostalgia? Listen to our podcast about last year’s Broadway season and our Tony Award predictions.