mon 22/09/2014

Summer on Broadway: The Musical is King | Features reviews, news & interviews

Summer on Broadway: The Musical is King

Three Broadway musicals range from the inane to the intense

A funny thing happened to the Broadway theatre as the summer drew to a close: every single play except one (The 39 Steps) closed in relatively quick succession, as if to remind showgoers that in New York's main commercial thoroughfare, the musical is king.

That wouldn't constitute news were it not for the fact that in the theatre season just gone, it was the play that remained the talking point throughout a 2008/9 Broadway lineup that saw the unexpected presence of Chekhov, Ionesco, Beckett, Ayckbourn, and Schiller in the playhouses studded across Manhattan's West 40s and 50s. And that list only partly acknowledges the heavyweight dramatists on view, however briefly, in New York of late: Christopher Hampton was represented not once but twice.

But to return to the Big Apple at the end of August was to find the tourists out in force, the prevailing theatrical fare presumably catering to the broadest possible taste. Small wonder that Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin in Waiting For Godot had by this point long skipped town. And whereas London at precisely the same time was offering a quartet of non-musical musts in Arcadia, Jerusalem, Rachel Weisz's surpassingly moving Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, and the Helen Mirren Phedre, New York showgoers could choose between letting the sun shine in at Hair, watching as the storm clouds of racial tension and gang warfare gather in West Side Story, and moving into the metaphoric light thanks to Next To Normal, the sleeper musical success whose composers, Tom Kitt and Bryan Yorkey, trumped Elton John to win the Tony Award for Best Score in June.

Next To Normal - or N2N as the show is known in the trade - remains the Serious New Musical in a musicals-obsessed theatre town that almost always posits one heavy hitter from that genre against more obviously appealing fare: the classic antithesis on this sort of art-vs-commerce front remains 1984 when Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's revelatory Sunday In the Park With George found itself vying for audiences - and awards - with the Broadway premiere of Jerry Herman's abidingly tuneful, audience-friendly La Cage Aux Folles. And while I wouldn't rank N2N anywhere near Sunday, its raw portrait of an apparently blissful American family undone by mental illness acquires double urgency when viewed against the pre-fab vulgarity of, say, 9 To 5, the musical version of the 1980 movie that called it quits September 6 after a run whose brevity (five months) surely came as a surprise to those awaiting the Broadway songwriting debut of no less a legend than Dolly Parton.

In fact, Parton's first original score for the stage rarely equalled the time-honoured Parton tune that gave both the movie and the stage musical its title, an insanely catchy number that the director Joe Mantello's frantic staging went to great pains to reprise at every opportunity, most wittily in a second-act comic lament for one of the frumpier supporting characters called, wait for it, "5 to 9". Elsewhere, the show's girl power seemed entirely synthetic as if to coast on the comparable sisterhood proffered most lucratively by the ongoing Wicked, a musical behemoth also, incidentally, directed by Mantello. (Female Bonding is the musical mantra du jour: The First Wives Club, adapted for the stage from the 1996 movie, recently finished an out of town tryout in California and is eyeing a New York engagement.)

Those wanting a proper ladies' night at the theatre could feast on the latest Broadway incarnation of West Side Story, which comes to properly explosive life in kinetic terms whenever the cast is reminding us anew of that thrilling Jerome Robbins choreography and in acting terms in the genuine bond established between Josefina Scaglione's soaringly sung Maria and her soulmate in sorrow, Anita, played with less sass and more gravitas than is usual by Tony winner Karen Olivo (pictured). Much was made in advance of this revival of the heightened use of Spanish so as to amplify the divide between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the highly territorial New York Jets. By the time I caught the show, much of the Spanish had reverted to the original English without in any way lessening Olivo's ferocious grip on a role that this gifted actress rescues from kitsch - the Chita Rivera/Rita Moreno trophy-bearer reconfigured not as cliche Latina spitfire but as a lover and friend who ends up partnered only with unshakeable grief.

Next To Normal stares headlong into a domestic abyss marked by alternately weak or absent men and women who live life so thoroughly in overdrive that they are consumed either by rage (a daughter marked by apparently terminal fury) or by bipolar swings in mood intended to keep at bay one particularly bruising fact about this family that won't be revealed here. Full-throttle mania is the fate afforded the mother Diana, played in a scalding, star-making turn by Alice Ripley that goes some way toward making up for the absence of serious theatre elsewhere in New York. This woman's woes are every bit a match for Phedre and Blanche, even if the earnestness of the piece might limit the show's appeal in London - a city that doesn't always warm to Broadway's latest musical wonder. (Look at the quick fade of Spring Awakening, for starters.)

More demanding fare will of course follow as Broadway wakes up this month and next and the likes of Jude Law in Hamlet and Sienna Miller and Jonny Lee Miller in After Miss Julie begin their limited New York runs; the prospect of Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman together in A Steady Rain has induced a collective swoon of anticipation unrivaled since Julia Roberts hit 45th Street over three years ago in Three Days Of Rain. Until then, go prepared solely for musicals and if you want some grit? A show whose title positions itself a shock therapy treatment or two away from normalcy is the place to start.

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