Sunday, July 17, 2011

Perspectives: A Week On The Great White Way

Our favorite on-the-road musical theatre reporter recently returned from a whirlwind trip to New York. Here's his Broadway rundown. Enjoy!

By Roving Theatre Geek, Shephard Summers

It’s a barrel of naughty monkeys from the get-go! Scathingly funny and critical, ribald and over-the-top… but it’s also just plain smart. The music – each song tuneful and rich in arrangement (the choral elements are wonderful) –tho not always for those who flee from 4-letter words. It’s old-fashioned in its sincere, straight-up format, but bitingly observant in its earnest portrayals. But what I don’t hear a lot of critics and fans sharing is the fact that this is also an honest and smart commentary. Any liberties taken seem to be in favor of story-telling, never at the expense of honesty. In fact, the truth is what is so damn funny about this story. I laughed til my eyes teared, and couldn’t wait to see what each song brought. But in the end, the message of what the Africans teach the Mormons is what I found the most brilliant. I can’t stop playing the cast CD (even tho I may not be singing EVERY song outloud).

Sutton sold us the tickets. I don’t mean personally, I mean, I’d go see her sing the phone book. I’ve seen her in many things, yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen her pull a full-fledged sassy Carol Burnett type performance out of her hat. She was brassy and world-wise, and fun to watch. The rest of the cast is… well-cast! The direction has a tongue-in-cheek spirit that livens the old-fashioned material significantly. And Joel Gray was charming, sweet and funny. I can’t imagine a Sutton Foster fan (or even a Cole Porter fan) being disappointed in this light musical romp.

Like Mamma Mia!, it’s meant to be an evening of fun! This was our second viewing, because we wanted to see the differences between the West End and Broadway productions. Bette Midler smartly tailored some song replacements to fit the American palette, tho I admit I have a fondness for some of the songs cut because they were in the original movie. Tony Sheldon is so fun to watch, such a natural and dry performance, yet warm as well. And Nick Adams was adorable and cheeky (in more ways than one). Also after enjoying Will Swenson in HAIR, I wasn’t expecting to see such a heart-felt and sincere portrayal of a gay man at odds with being a father and his lifestyle. Very endearing, very believable. PRISCILLA is spirit-lifting! Who doesn’t love zaftig divas in feathers serenading the audience while flying through the air above a shockingly pink LED bus full of drag-queens?
We were beyond thrilled to get tickets to this limited run. I should hope this production will at least land in LA for a run. I hadn’t seen the original production of course, but I was blown away by this cast: Joe Mantello, Ellen Barkin, John Benjamin Hickey, Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Mark Harelik, Luke MacFarlane, Patrick Breen, Wayne Wilcox and Richard Topol. As word-crafted as this writing is, this play is about showing, not telling: we see the impact of the aids epidemic taking its toll on those fighting so hard to gain the slightest ground…while being ignored and cast aside. By the end, I was in tears, not only for the tragic disregard for human life and the stomach-punch to humanity, but the play brought me to the emotional center of my own struggle to rise above being diminished for simply being gay. I don’t know if it’s possible to have more humanity than this play portrays, breaking down what it means to be human… like the title says… the normal heart.

I had no idea what to expect, but went on the recommendation of a theatre friend. In addition to finding Marc Shaiman’s very recognizable and fun song-stylings, I found a smartly crafted story, that begins at the end, rewinds humorously backwards, then forwards, keeping the indefatigable detective (Norbert Leo Butz) at the mercy of the feisty fellon (Aaron Tveit). Shaiman crafts songs to match the lower-key, more realistic story than HAIRSPRAY. But the story moves along nicely, its clever mouse staying one step ahead of the patient cat. This show’s big numbers are fun, but where it really shines are its pairings. Norbert and Aaron, Tom Wopat and Aaron, Norbert and Tom, Aaron and Kerry Butler..etc. (we loved Tom as the beguiling father figure, singing ala Sinatra and Sammy with his son --Aaron). And I absolutely loved Kerry Butler’s 11th hour torch song. While it’s hard to beat HAIRSPRAY’s exuberance and dancy fun, this musical is deftly carried by Norbert and Aaron, perfectly matched and singing and dancing at the top of their game.

Looks like it might be time for a summer road trip!

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