(An editorial note — from 2002 through 2006, I wrote a series of short reviews of New York theatre. These took the form of seasonal New York Reports and were published in the Philadelphia CITY PAPER. They are long-gone now — as are many of the shows — but some of you might enjoy them as snapshots from the last decade. Here is the first of ten.)
In the increasingly high-stakes world of Broadway musicals, the trend seems to be similar to that of recent TV seasons: there will be one mega-hit, so ordained by both critics and audiences, plus a lot of other stuff fighting to survive. We saw the phenomenon last year with THE PRODUCERS. Next, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE made a brief claim to the spot, but quickly was edged out by this year’s blockbuster. That is, of course, HAIRSPRAY. With a $27,000,000 advance, it’s not likely that you’ll be seeing the Harvey Fierstein vehicle anytime soon. But contrary to initial appearances, there is a season out there, with some intriguing shows, both big and small. (And with a little luck, a few of them might even stay around long enough for you to see!)
MOVIN’ OUT (Richard Rodgers Theatre). After HAIRSPRAY, MOVIN’ OUT is probably the other blockbuster claimant. It’s based on a blockbuster idea, certainly – pair up Billy Joel’s music with Twyla Tharp’s choreography. What emerges is a loosely-constructed piece that follows two couples and various friends through good and hard times. The narrative is almost non-existent, yet serendipitously allows Tharp to explore some of her favorite tropes: conflicted romances, Vietnam, nostalgia for the rock-‘n-rollin’ ‘60s. It’s not Tharp’s best work, but it is fabulously danced, especially by sexy John Selya and Elizabeth Parkinson, a stunning Nicole-Kidman-look-alike. Michael Cavanaugh sings and plays the familiar Joel songs as to the manner born. If ultimately one feels that MOVIN’ OUT is driven more by commercial interests than creative ones, it’s hard to resist its energy.
AMOUR (Music Box Theatre). A commercial risk that didn’t pay off. Michel Legrand’s first Broadway musical is a lyrical fable about a man who can walk through walls. The piece is a tad fey, but I enjoyed AMOUR a lot. The through-composed score finds Legrand still in command of the boulevardier charm he displayed almost 40 years ago in UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. Jeremy Sams’ English lyrics (adapted from French originals) have sass and style. Malcolm Gets and Melissa Errico were adorable in the leads, and the seven-member supporting ensemble was superb. I admired especially James Lapine’s witty direction and the lovely scenery by Scott Pask. Most of all, AMOUR didn’t look like anything else, which is a rare virtue in our often-formulaic theatre. Helas, the show’s charms proved too idiosyncratic and ephemeral for Broadway. AMOUR was a hit in Paris, but for Americans it’s apparently like other French perishables – best enjoyed while abroad, not to be imported.
FLOWER DRUM SONG (Virginia Theatre). Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1959 musical where East meets West in Chinatown, San Francisco, has always gotten a bad rap. It’s considered cheesy and simplistic at best, racist at worst. Actually the score has some marvelous songs (alongside a fair amount of dross), and even the naïve cross-cultural theme has theatrical potential. It seemed like a good idea to have David Henry Hwang freshen the book, and bring in the elegant director Robert Longbottom to stage the new version. Longbottom comes off best – the opening “A Hundred Million Miracles” is magical, and many of the other numbers are snappy good fun. The book scenes, though, feel inert – Hwang has substituted new clichés for Hammerstein’s old ones. Lea Salonga as Mei-Li is lovely but monochromatic. I preferred the peppy Sandra Allen, who plays assimilated showgirl Lisa Low.
A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater/Lincoln Center). A small musical based on a small movie, MAN tells the story of a middle-aged Irishman who is a bus worker by day, amateur theatre director by night. The secondary (or perhaps primary) plot shows him fighting to accept his homosexuality. The show wants to be two things at once: a sentimental drama about identity, and a jolly tale of leprechaun-ish folks puttin’ on a show (Wilde’s SALOME, of all things), but the clash of styles finds one undercutting the other. Composer/lyricists Flaherty and Ahrens are masters at assimilating international styles, but apart from their marvelous score for RAGTIME, I’ve not been bowled over. Here, the Celtic-tinged songs are serviceable while you’re hearing them, forgotten a moment later. Roger Rees is a decent singer by actor standards (and of course a fine actor by any standards). Joe Mantello’s direction keeps the proceedings moving, but in the end MAN feels unfocused and surprisingly drab.
THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (Marquis Theatre). Fans of the 1967 movie will want to know that this MILLIE has been refitted with a score (by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan) that incorporates just two of the old songs. Fear not. The new material is tuneful, the cute story – plucky small-town girl comes to New York to find a husband and enters the Jazz Age – is intact. Better still, production values are sumptuous, and the fun-for-the-family show is livened by some adult wit. Sutton Foster’s adorable Millie and Harriet Harris as Mrs. Meers (the Woman We Love To Hate) are sterling, with the rest of the company nearly as good. MILLIE is a throwback to another era, when musicals did no more than leave the audience feeling good. Guess what? You will. On its own terms, it’s hard to imagine a pleasanter evening.
Musicals in Mufti (York Theatre Company/The Theatre at St. Peter’s, 54th). Musicals in Mufti has come up with an intimate, utterly charming counterpart to New York’s vaunted (and impossibly oversubscribed) Encores! series. Like Encores!, MIM brings back forgotten-but-worthy musicals for a limited number of performances. (Their Spring season promises Noel Coward’s PACIFIC 1860, John Kander’s A FAMILY AFFAIR, and Kenward Elmslie’s legendary but almost never produced THE GRASS HARP.) I caught JUMBO, which was a mischievous choice – a 1935 Rodgers and Hart musical originally designed for the 5,000-plus seat Hippodrome, the show calls for (among other things) a live elephant! There wasn’t one in the tiny York Theatre, of course – not even an orchestra, nor much scenery. But a handful of engaging actor/singers, accompanied by two pianos, sang gems like “My Romance” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and reminded us that good performers doing good material is what the theatre is all about.