NEW YORK THEATRE REPORT (Spring 2003)

MAN OF LA MANCHA Stokes and Co

(More from the CITY PAPER archives — reviews of Broadway’s LA BOHEME, MAN OF LA MANCHA,

Quoth Rodgers and Hart: “Spring is here/Why doesn’t my heart go dancing?”  Indeed, it’s been a curiously flat-footed season.  Three – count ‘em,  three – original musicals opened on Broadway.  One, DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES, had a stake driven through its heart after only 117 performances, more than half of which were previews.  URBAN COWBOY has already become Urban Legend: opening, closing, and reopening all within a week.  (Its ultimate fate remains unknown).  While we’re being actuarial, note that Broadway’s second biggest crowd pleaser –after HAIRSPRAY, of course – is 107 years old. (No, not Chita Rivera.  It’s Puccini’s LA BOHEME).  Off-Broadway has taken its knocks too, notably with RADIANT BABY, a musical about 80’s pop art icon Keith Haring that opened with much hoopla at the New York Public Theatre… and closed just over a month later.  Perhaps it’s a lesson in the danger of creating a show about the Flavor of Last Month. 

LA BOHEME (Broadway Theatre).  “There goes the neighborhood,” said musical curmudgeons when it was announced that the Puccini opera would get a sexy new take at the Broadway Theatre, just ten blocks from Lincoln Center.  Director-of-the-moment Baz Luhrman is at his best in the busy stuff: there’s a wealth of detail in his flavorful evocation of the Latin Quarter, and the frat-boy antics of poet Rudolfo and his cohort have rarely been so exuberant.  On the other hand, there are musical colors and verbal nuances in the Puccini score that here – with a reduced orchestra and some young voices pushing as hard as they can – go unrealized.  (The singers all look slim, though, which is what people usually think is “good opera acting.”)  Weird meta-theatrical scene shifts have nothing to do with the generally realistic take on the production.  But it would be a curmudgeon indeed who failed to succumb to the Romantic charms of this BOHEME.

MAN OF LA MANCHA (Martin Beck Theatre).  Jonathan Kent’s new production has energy, clever props and a dazzling steel trap of a set – but in a musical that’s about the triumph of human imagination, the emphasis feels misplaced.  To my mind, the best reason to see it is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s luminous Aldonza, which is marvelously acted and sung.  As for Brian Stokes Mitchell as the Man himself… his molten baritone is perfect for the score, but while Mitchell glides through the acting challenges with infinite grace, he never really breaks the heart.  Ernie Sabella continues the unwelcome MOLM tradition of playing Sancho Panza like Jerry Lewis. Mostly the problem is the show itself – overrated when it first opened, the years have added no appreciable luster.  Apart from Quixote’s barnstorming “Impossible Dream,” most of the score sounds like “Do You Know The Way To San Jose?” sung at varying tempos.

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (New York City Opera).  It says something about the season that New York City Opera mounted the starriest musical of the year: Sondheim’s NIGHT MUSIC with Jeremy Irons (Frederik), Juliet Stevenson (Desiree) and Claire Bloom (Madame Armfeldt).  Surrounding them were a host of capable musical theatre performers, including Marc Kudisch (Carl-Magnus) and Michele Pawk (Charlotte).  Scott Ellis’s production (a revival, actually) gives the piece an elegantly simple look, and lets the performers score their points.  Our British principals – their voices anything but operatic – were symbolically and practically miscast in Lincoln Center’s cavernous State Theater.  But Irons and Stevenson were by any other standard just about perfect, their acting revealing a wealth of nuance and their singing genuinely musical.  (Bloom was classy, but ultimately disappointing.)   This was an imperfect but glamorous NIGHT MUSIC that will not soon be bettered. 

Encores!: Great American Musicals in Concert, City Center, West 55th between 6th and 7th Avenues, (212) 581-1212.  For just over a decade, Encores! has been producing the most reliably terrific musicals in New York – specifically concert performances of worthy older shows, given a curatorial treatment by Musical Director Rob Fisher, and featuring superlative casts.  (The CHICAGO revival began its life here.)  This year, even Encores! had a rocky start.  HOUSE OF FLOWERS, the legendary Harold Arlen/Truman Capote show, proved more interesting in lore than in performance.  But the company recouped with a dazzling production of  NEW MOON, a 1927 operetta by Romberg and Hammerstein.  The show remains wonderfully tuneful and charming, and was gorgeously sung and acted by opera’s Rodney Gilfry and Broadway’s Christiane Noll.  Tickets for Encores! shows are very hard to get (and it really matters where you sit in user-unfriendly City Center).  But do try!  Still to come (May 8-11) is Richard Rodger’s nearly-forgotten but wonderful NO STRINGS.

Coming up soon on Broadway –high-profile revivals of NINE (with Antonio Banderas) and GYPSY (with all-grown-up-now Bernadette Peters).  Perhaps Spring will warm up yet.

Categories: New York, Theater

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