So spring break traditionally means a trip to the Big Apple for me – and a chance to check out the Broadway shows that are gearing up for the Tony season. In order:
Jesus Christ Superstar: This wasn’t exactly on the top of my must-see list—but it was one of the few shows with a Monday evening performance. Certainly, the production had got buzz: Des McAnuff’s high concept, high tech version started life at the Stratford Festival, before transferring to La Jolla, and then to Broadway. And surely the conceit is an intriguing one: the life of Jesus as ripped-from-the-headlines, with crawling LCD screens—à la CNN—and frequent nods to crises in the Middle East (principally through costume design). When Des goes for dazzle—as in the spectacular concluding crucifixion—it’s truly eye-popping, and there’s something to be said for putting the starriness in Superstar. After Jesus breathes his last, McAnuff floods the theater with projections of the written Gospel; in a clever reversal of expectations, it’s the flesh made Word.
But the production, clever as it is, lacks modulation: like Jersey Boys—also directed by McAnuff—this Superstar is high-wattage all the time, and sometimes at cross-purposes to the more tender moments in Tim Rice’s libretto. There’s very good work by Paul Nolan as Jesus, though Josh Young (Judas) apparently suffered an asthma attack during Heaven on My Mind, and was replaced partway through the first act. (I can’t imagine going on for Judas with literally no more notice than a scene change: to my mind, the show’s real superstar was the understudy, Jeremy Kushnier.) There are some moments of questionable taste—designer Paul Tazewell’s Roman centurions look like rejects from Star Wars—though Herod’s flamboyant second act number sends up the show’s own flirtation with camp.
Carrie, The Musical. Speaking of camp, the MCC revives—in a newly re-tooled production—the infamous Broadway flop based on Stephen King’s first novel. But in a sense, that’s an unfair segue: indeed, this version of Carrie, directed with skill and affection by Stafford Arima, is resolutely sincere: there’s hardly an ounce of camp in it.
Unfortunately, the source material is still problematic, to put things gently. (My companion considered it the worst first act he’d ever seen in professional theater; but he never saw Don Quixote at the San Diego Rep. Now that was horrible.) Dean Pitchford’s pedestrian lyrics and the overall weirdness of the story just don’t help this musicalization: everybody involved seems to be working so hard, for so little profit. The musical is played straight—like an opera—and the second act achieves (almost in spite of itself) a certain operatic grandeur: the concluding disaster at the prom (involving a tastefully projected bucket of pig’s blood) actually works as good theater. But a lot of Carrie lumbers under its early 1980’s score and sheer earnestness.
Once. A musicalization of the beloved independent film, which won the Oscar for Best Song (“Falling Slowly”). In some senses, this is a surprising production for Broadway: it’s small, intimate, and Irish. (Seriously, the accents are pretty thick, both Irish and Czech: the patrons next to me were having trouble with intelligibility.) But it’s also one of the loveliest pieces of theater I’ve seen in ages: an unconventional love story, between an aspiring, melancholy song-writer and his curious, Czech muse. Movement and direction are by Steven Hoggett and John Tiffany, responsible for the (amazing) Black Watch, and their fingerprints are all over this production: from the fluid scene changes, to the surprising set-pieces, to the simple, touching choreography. The ‘orchestra’ is a band of on-stage guitar-strummers and accordion-players, morphing into the various Irish and Czech communities that make up Once’s fairytale world. I would expect both leads--Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti—to be Tony-nominated; ditto for the production and direction.
The Best Man. I doubt I’ll ever again see such a starry cast assembled for a regular Broadway run: Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones, Candice Bergen, John Larroquette, Eric McCormack, Jefferson Mays, and, as hard as it is to believe, even more. (There’s even a San Antonio connection: Fred Parker, seen in the AtticRep’s Mr. Marmalade, landed a part in the ensemble.) The piece itself—by Gore Vidal—is one of those old-fashioned, intelligently crafted three-act plays that flourished in the mid-century: the plot concerns two rival candidates for the 1960 presidential nomination. Though there were a few line flubs at the preview—principally from Lansbury and Jones—Michael Wilson’s production was already fluid and engaging, even if the play seems a wee bit creaky. All in all, a guilty pleasure.
Red (at the Florida Rep). John Logan’s Red has the peculiar distinction of being one of the shortest-lived “Best Play” winners ever: producers chose not to extend its run after its sweep of the 2010 Tony awards. It’s also, to my mind, a simply terrible play: I found it complete garbage from beginning to end. This two-hander purports to recount the relationship between painter Mark Rothko and his newly-hired assistant, but it’s mostly an opportunity for Logan-as-Rothko to bloviate incessantly about the meaning of art, tragedy, Nietzsche, the nature of being, etc. It’s exactly the sort of thing that middlebrow audiences mistake as profundity when it’s truly the other way around: all the beauty and complexity of mid-century art reduced to pithy aphorisms and hackneyed clichés. There’s also a constant war between form and content: could there be a less effective way to explore abstract expressionism than through melodramatic naturalism? Ick. (Except for the awful choice of play, the Florida Rep mounted a handsome production. But egads, I hated it.)
-Thomas “Man of Few Opinions” Jenkins, Current theatre critic.