Broadway Briefing

In the interest of efficiency, rather than back-logging I instead offer this briefing of shows I’ve seen (that are still playing and that I didn’t review in depth in a previous post). Going forward, I’ll share my complete thoughts about and reactions to shows, concerts, et al as I see them. This post is the Broadway edition. A smaller off-Broadway edition will be posted later.

  • The 39 Steps – fun and entertaining; four cast members play over one hundred characters, using light and sound to great effect. This is closing in January, (it was originally a limited run, then extended to an open ended run and went through several venue changes; there’s now talk that it may move off-Broadway, a la Avenue Q) so try to see it at the Helen Hayes Theatre while it’s there.

  • Billy Elliot – good but not revelatory. The choreography is impressive but the score is derivative. A general crowd pleaser, BE is selling so well that one year into their run they still don’t have to offer discounts. If you want to see this, plan in advance – no TKTS scores for this one.

  • Burn the Floor – energetic dancing and a slick, highly produced production. I saw this for free (I went with a friend who had press tickets) on its first night of previews over the summer. It was nice to see a dance show while NYC Ballet was on hiatus, but nothing that you should run to given all the other theatre options.

  • Bye, Bye, Birdie – highly disappointing. There was no chemistry among the cast; the kids lacked energy (except for the curtain call number); Gina Gershon struggled to hit her notes and her marks; and Bill Irwin thought he was in clown school instead of Henry Miller’s Theatre. I thought my summer camp production (in which I played Mae Peterson!) was better.

  • Fela! – Great! Telling the deeply moving story of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician who used his nightclub (the Shrine) and music (Afro-beat) as a mode of political expression, Fela! envelops you from the moment you walk into the theatre and are greeted with “Welcome na de Shrine.” Bill T. Jones, who won a Tony for choreographing Spring Awakening, conceived, co-wrote, directed and choreographed this production which is not to be missed. (Bonus: During the show you get a free dance lesson!) (Extra bonus: Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith are now producers.) Update: Read the rave review in the NY Times!

  • Finian’s Rainbow – simply delightful. The director and creative team were smart to downplay the clunky (and slightly exploitative) book and instead focus on the aesthetic and beautiful score. The cast is terrific: Hunky Cheyenne Jackson commands the stage when he’s on and has a charm that’s difficult to resist; Chris Fitzgerald is hilarious (and acrobatic!) as a leprechaun; Jim Norton is a sweet, sweet, old man who you just want to keep in your pocket; and Kate Baldwin is sensational. A feisty red-head, Baldwin mostly nails the Irish accent and has a lovely, sweet, wistful voice that makes you wish you were back in Glocca Mora. (Sports Night fans: fast forward to 6:30.)

  • God of Carnage – excellent. Yasmina Reza is an extraordinary modern playwright with a knack for biting and honest dialogue. Expertly directed by Matt Warchus (one of the best directors out there, in my opinion) this crisp play about a pair of parents gathering to discuss an “altercation” between their sons is funny, sharp and elicits a visceral reaction. The New York production was headlined by all stars James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels and Marcia Gay Harden, who was honored with a Tony for her performance. That cast just left and a new (slightly less bright) starry cast, including Jimmy Smits and Christine Lahti, just began their run. I think the clever writing and pitch-perfect direction will translate for this cast and others. (On a side note: Matt Warchus directed Boeing Boeing two seasons ago (a great farce starring Bradley Whitford!) and The Norman Conquest Trilogy last season. Both were terrific, not least of all because of Warchus’s immense talent.)

  • In the Heights – lots of unjustified hype. This was hailed as new and exciting and revolutionary. I found it to be none of those things. Well, new, yes – it is not a revival – but new with regard to structure or devices? Nope. Lin-Manuel Miranda should be commended for having written a musical – that’s an incredible feat. However, it is as traditional a book musical as they come: Big number to end act one, soft love song to begin act two followed quickly by a big production number… Nothing new in the structure. I also didn’t care for the two female leads (one of whom has left – but she’s currently Anita in West Side Story) and I also didn’t think the choreography was inventive. Most people who see this love it; perhaps if I saw it again, with this different cast and now after the hype has died down I might enjoy it more, but there’s too much else that I’ve yet to see (or want to see again) to take a chance on being disappointed twice.

  • The Lion King – I saw this in London in December 2000 but I think it’s a safe bet that the New York production is the same. It was entertaining and the audience’s (and my) excitement at watching the “animals” crawl through the theatre was palpable. The script and most of the score is taken verbatim from the movie which is fine – newness is not why you see Lion King. Tickets are on the pricier side (it is, after all, a Disney production) and a little hard to come by, but it’s sure to entertain the whole family.

  • Memphis – a fantastic new original musical. Set in 1950s Memphis, this tells the story of a white DJ who likes “race music”, as it’s called. He falls for a black singer (the powerhouse Montego Glover) and tries to get her – and her friends’ – record on the radio. Though the racial intolerance they encounter is a little trite, the music – which runs the gamut from rock to gospel to R&B – is powerful and the choreography thrills. Sergio Trujillo, who choreographed Jersey Boys and Next to Normal, does excellent work here; just try sitting through this without shaking your groove thing!

  • Phantom of the Opera – I also saw this in London in December 2000; I think I just don’t care for the show. I don’t remember much about particular performances, but Phantom is a big, huge theatrical production. Not quite my thing but, as the longest running show in Broadway history, I’m clearly in the minority in that opinion. (Although, I think it sells so well because it’s so well known, not necessarily because it’s known for being done well.)

  • Ragtime – good. Usually there is more time between an original production and a revival but a little over ten years later, this scaled down production of Ragtime is welcomed and particularly poignant – perhaps even more so in the age of Obama than during its original run. Christiane Noll is fabulous as Mother and Bobby Steggert is powerful as Younger Brother, if a little reminiscent of Jonathan Groff in Spring Awakening. Stephanie Umoh, who plays Sarah, lacks the vocal power and stage presence of Audra McDonald, who originated the role, which makes Wheels of a Dream a little disappointing, but Quentin Earl Darrington, taking on the pivotal role of Colehouse Walker, originated by Brian Stokes Mitchell, more than makes up for it in Make Them Hear You. A bare-bones set and fluid staging highlight the score and help to make for an enjoyable night of theatre.

  • Shrek the Musical – Sutton Foster. She’s a dynamo and will cast a spell over you at the start of act two. Unfortunately, the musical is just good. Not great. It’s funny and a little cheeky and all the performances are solid but Shrek suffers from too high expectations. Brian d’Arcy James, who until recently played the big green ogre, is a terrific performer with a smooth, affecting voice and expertly sharpened acting chops; the problem is that the show didn’t show this off. Shrek closes in January but will kick off its national tour in Chicago in July 2010.

  • Wicked – a great big powerhouse of a musical. With a traditional Broadway score and production numbers, this isn’t the kind of musical I tend to become passionate about and see multiple times, but it is a great show to see at least once, whether in NY or on tour. Wicked shows us what happened in Oz before Dorothy arrived. Wicked the musical is a lot more fantastical than the Gregory Maguire novel upon which it’s based and takes some liberties with the plot, but that doesn’t really matter. The score is fantastic, including the light hearted but deceivingly sardonic Popular, the “you-go-girl” anthem Defying Gravity (watch Rachel and Kurt’s “diva-off” on Glee and try not to cry) and my (and my mom’s) favorite, For Good, a beautiful ballad about recognizing the power of people’s presence. Discounts are nonexistent and the show consistently sells to capacity so plan ahead and be prepared to spend big. Worth it, though, for a great show (and pre show: The Gershwin is a huge theatre and the theatrical history depicted in the photos lining the walls are cat nip for dramaturges and theatre buffs like me.)


  1. Your review of Wicked echoes my feelings about the show. I especially enjoyed your reference to For Good, a song which I, too, find very moving...time and time again.


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