June 8, 2013

Highs and Lows of the Season’s Biggest Shows

Off-Broadway shows usually come and go more quickly than big main-stem Broadway productions (unless those productions are duds or feature big Hollywood stars who sign up for limited runs or are both) and so I try to write about the little shows before they disappear. But that means I sometimes fall behind with the more high profile ones. Which is the predicament in which I now find myself. The Tonys are tomorrow night and there are at least half a dozen big—and nominated—shows that I’ve yet to weigh in on.

Some of them include Pippin, which has gotten 10 nominations, and is the frontrunner for Best Revival of a Musical; Matilda, the critical darling that is running neck and neck with Kinky Boots (click here for the review I did manage to do on that one) for Best Musical and The Nance, the play that has given the much beloved and multi-talented Nathan Lane the chance to make audiences both laugh and cry with one singular performance.
I’m not going to try to handicap the winners (there are plenty of other folks doing that; click here and here and here to read some of them). But below is my quick rundown of the highlights and lowlights of six of tomorrow night’s big contenders:
THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES. Playwright Richard Greenberg’s family drama hits all the sweet spots for New York theatergoers:  it’s about an affluent Jewish clan that likes to eat well and lives in a 14-room apartment on the Upper West Side.
Highlight: The performances, lead by Jessica Hecht, Judith Light and Jeremy Shamos, are warm and winning. And the gorgeous—room-flowing-into-room—set that Santo Loquasto has designed really is to die for.
Lowlight: The show’s message about how we define family isn’t as deep as it wants to be and its conclusion that friends with money are the best kind to have isn’t as admirable as I’d like it to be.
Tony Spotlight:  The Assembled Parties has three nominations, including for Best Play, Judith Light for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play and Loquasto for the set, which I hope he gets.  

MATILDA. The Brits loved this musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s sly children’s book about a very smart little girl who has to contend with very dumb parents and a malevolent schoolmistress. And the show has also received the best reviews of the New York spring season.
Highlight: The kids in the ensemble who play Matilda’s schoolmates are fantastic and totally ace Peter Darling’s ingeniously original choreography. Plus Gabriel Ebert, who gave a breakout performance as the troubled grandson in Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, is a hoot as Matilda’s dad and is now heir apparent to the rubbery-limbed funnyman roles once played by the likes of Ray Bolger and Dick Van Dyke.
Lowlight:  The sound is so muddy that it’s difficult to understand the lyrics. Meanwhile, although the set is great to look at, it’s been breaking down even weeks into the run and stopping the show until the machinery gets fixed. And while Bertie Carvel gives a fully committed performance as the gorgon headmistress, it also strikes me as a bit one-note.
Tony Spotlight: The show picked up 12 nominations, winning nods in all the categories for which it was eligible, except for sound design and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical. The latter omission is because a quartet of young actresses alternates the title role of Matilda and rather than pit them against one another, they were taken out of the running for the best actress prize and all four have been given a special award by the Tony committee. 

MOTOWN: Berry Gordy both produced and wrote this jukebox musical about the legendary music label he founded over 50 years ago.

Highlight: D’uh.  The great Motown songbook is the draw here. And it's performed by an energetic cast that gamely mimics the look and sound of such acts as The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, little Michael Jackson and, of course, Diana Ross & The Supremes (click here to read a piece I wrote for TDF Stages about the casting process).   
Lowlight:  The book, which gives new meaning to the word hagiography.
Tony Spotlight: Motown got shut out of the Best Musical category and only managed to nab four other nominations, including best featured actor nods for Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross and Charl Brown as Smokey Robinson, but this musical is already a big winner at the box office and a featured production number from this crowd pleaser could steal the show on tomorrow night’s broadcast as well.
THE NANCE: A love story set against the backdrop of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s attempt to wipe out the burlesque world of the late 1930s, Douglas Carter Beane’s play evokes a time when prissy gay characters were a comic staple on New York stages while real-life gay men could be arrested for showing any sign of their sexuality.
Highlight: Lane gives a nuanced performance as a professional funny man (his comedic show-within-a-show routines are great) whose inner sadness and self-hatred keep him from the love he longs to have. 

Lowlight: The idea behind this show is great as are the commitment of its star, writer and director Jack O’Brien but I wish Beane had pontificated less and pushed himself to dig even deeper into the complexities of being a gay man in that time.
Tony Spotlight: Four of the show’s five nominations were for its design but Lane is definitely in the running in the über competitive category of Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play.  

PIPPIN: This Stephen Schwartz musical about a Medieval prince and his quest for the meaning of life is making its first return to Broadway since the landmark 1972 production that was directed by Bob Fosse and made a star—and  a Tony winner—out of Ben Vereen, who played the leader of a traveling band of actors and the narrator of the tale. 
Highlight: Even after all these years, Schwartz’s score is as familiar and enjoyable as it ever was and the show’s hippie-era message that all anyone—prince or commoner—really needs is love is still one we crave to believe. 

Lowlight:  Everyone seems to love director Diane Paulus’ idea to integrate circus performers into the production and their feats are fun to watch but they don’t really connect to the show and struck me as more gratuitous spectacle than inherently theatrical.
Tony Spotlight:  Casting Vereen’s old part of the Leading Player as a woman was a gamble but it’s earned Patina Miller her second nomination in as many years. She looks fabulous doing the Fosse-inspired dances that Chet Walker has choreographed for the show but people seem even more excited about the featured role nominations for the stage vets Terrence Mann as Pippin’s dad Charlemagne and Andrea Martin as his literally swinging grandmother Berthe.

THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL: Horton Foote created a dream role for older actresses when he wrote the character Carrie Watts, a woman who is forced to live in close quarters with her grown son and daughter-in-law while yearning for one final visit to her childhood home. And director Michael Wilson has crafted a beautiful production in which the drama's major roles are played by African-American actors lead by Cicely Tyson as Carrie. 
Highlight:  No black actress has had a more successful career than Tyson, who turns 80 in December. And now she's giving the best and most unaffected performance she’s ever done.
Lowlight: Not much to complain about here. Except possibly that Vanessa Williams is a touch too cartoonish and maybe even too beautiful (although what can she do about that?) in the role of the shrewish daughter-in-law.  

Tony Spotlight: The play marks Tyson’s first time on Broadway in 30 years and she's a frontrunner for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play. The show also brings  the second nomination in a row for Condola Rashad who plays a young woman who befriends Carrie. Watching the scenes between the two of them is pure joy.

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