A Broadway update, on the eve of the Tonys
On the eve of the 2010 Tony Awards ceremony, here's an update on some of the attractions of note that hit Broadway this spring — shows we may be seeing in Seattle in the not-too-distant future, from Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson.
Seattle Times theater critic
The 2010 Tony Awards8 p.m. Sunday, KIRO-TV Ch. 7
What a strange year it's been on Broadway! But then, what year hasn't been strange on the Great White Way in the past decade, as costs (and ticket prices) have escalated, new digital entertainment forms have emerged, the economy has palled and volcanic ash has kept away European tourists?
Despite such challenges, and no new blockbusters emerging, Broadway's 2009-10 box-office take rose slightly (to just over $1 billion) from the prior season. But according to the entertainment journal Variety, changes in how ticket receipts are tallied (a net figure this season, vs. a gross figure in previous years) may wipe out any apparent gains. In any event, attendance fell slightly, from last season's 12.15 million to 11.89 million.
In this go-round, critical opinion was even more at odds with commercial outcome than usual. And with ticket prices averaging $80-plus a pop, the show-shoppers were those that stuck mainly with long-running, family-friendly hits ("Wicked," "The Lion King," "Mamma Mia"), or limited-run dramas starring a bevy of screen celebs — from Jude Law and Hugh Jackman to Catherine Zeta-Jones and Denzel Washington.
A paucity of glitzy new musicals and the short runs of most "legit" plays did leave room for more offbeat and "niche" debut tuners and a smattering of chewy, if less dynamic, topical dramas. No matter how long the stay, they did offer some flickers of hope that Broadway isn't just marching in place.
On the eve of the 2010 Tony Awards ceremony, here's an update on some of the attractions of note that hit Broadway this spring — shows we may be seeing in Seattle in the not-too-distant future:
"Sondheim on Sondheim," a live and filmed tribute to the 80-year old showmaker Stephen Sondheim, raises the question: who will our greatest Broadway composer-lyricist pass his torch to? Who will create the next "Sweeney Todd" or "Company"?
Hard to tell, from the latest shows to hit the rialto. Most sport pre-existing rock and pop tunes piped in from the recent (and distant) record charts.
One of the few with all-original songs (along with the Seattle-debuted, Tony Award-nominated R&B tuner "Memphis"), is "The Addams Family" — a hit despite the critical drubbing it took.
Having few expectations of this shticky riff based on the deliciously morbid characters of New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams (and their movie and TV spin-offs) is helpful. A masterpiece it ain't, with a snappy but workmanlike score by Andrew Lippa.
But Nathan Lane's perfectly arch comic timing as the patriarch Gomez; Bebe Neuwirth as his svelte, wan wife Morticia; and the rest of the nimble ensemble serve up many variations on a single joke with poker-face panache.
The joke, of course, is how creepy (and oddly endearing) this macabre clan is, compared to the doltish "normal" parents of daughter Wednesday's intended.
A big part of the show's appeal is visual, with the Addams' Gothic, castle-sized homestead conjured to the hilt by hip British designer-directors Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, and the family's lethal pets crafted by top puppeteer Basil Twist.
Yes, guilty as charged. I had fun at "Addams Family," so sue me.
But a far more daring, contemporary attraction is "American Idiot," a new musical based on the recent hit concept album by the punk-rock group Green Day.
Director Michael Mayer (wrongly denied a Tony nomination for the show) has whipped Green Day's thrashing song cycle of post-9/11 youth malaise into a rock opera far darker than any Addams goings-on.
On an epic mosh pit of a set, pockmarked with image-blasting video screens, the rebellious Everyboy Johnny (impassioned John Gallagher Jr.) ditches stultifying suburbia. While one pal goes off to war, and another stays behind with a kid and a wife, Johnny finds hot love and hard drugs in the big city — and returns home much chastened, yet still aimless.
The snarky dispatches uttered by Johnny (cowritten by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and Mayer) are weak stabs at giving "American Idiot" some plot and character development.
But this show is an emblematic, generational blast, not a "book" musical. It's the propulsive staging and those great, stinging Green Day odes — ferocious, lyrical, infectious — that carry the central message: Reach adulthood in this confused, overmedicated, surreal culture, and you may discover that not everything is totally hopeless.
The sadder-but-wiser finale of the show, "Wake Me When September Ends," is a sobering contrast to the ecstatic 1960s youth anthem "Let the Sunshine In" closing the Broadway revival of "Hair." But on both tunes, it's poignant to see teenagers and their boomer parents singing along.
Twyla Tharp's new dance musical "Come Fly With Me" dips into the dark and gritty also, but disappointingly so. An expansion of Tharp's brilliant 1980s "Sinatra Suite" ballet, this all-dance affair is set in a bar where the jukebox plays only the hits of Ol' Blue Eyes (heard on record, but eerily backed by a live big band).
Couples drink, flirt, toss each other around, steal each others' partners and in the boozy wee small hours, tear off their shirts and skirts.
The dexterous movers, led by the great John Selya ("Movin Out") and firecracker Tony nominee Karine Plantadit, are invincible. But the hard-sell tone and repetitive choreography make you long for Tharp's more eloquent, variegated homage to the songbook of Billy Joel, "Movin' Out."
"Million Dollar Quartet" encores hits from the 1950s, the rockabilly kind, with more zest and zeal.
Inspired by an accidental jam session at the Sun Studios in Memphis in 1956, when the young Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash happened to meet up, it's been polished to a fine gloss since a hit 2007 stand at Issaquah's Village Theatre. (The Village also helped develop the piece, in a workshop staging.)
The Broadway polish hasn't blotted out the down-home charm a bit. And the admirable cast of actor-musicians (including Seattle native Rob Lyons) rev up the crowd with the genial gusto of early rock'n'roll.
Though it was one of the two most touted of Broadway's smattering of spring drama premieres, the Geoffrey Nauffts play "Next Fall" doesn't fulfill its intriguing mandate to explore faith, love and culture-bridging.
A jaded gay New Yorker hooks up with a hunky young Southern actor, a practicing Christian who prays for forgiveness every time they have sex. So how do their differing beliefs reconcile when the actor gets run over by a taxi? Who makes the hard spiritual and medical decisions — the victim's conservative parents (who don't know he's gay), or his atheist partner?
These are life-and-death concerns, but they are too neatly wrapped in a glib script populated by semi-caricatures."Next Fall" is not quite convincing as romantic comedy, nor as domestic tragedy.
Another show that parted me from some of my colleagues: the trans-Atlantic hit "Red," a drama about famed abstract painter Mark Rothko, by American dramatist John Logan.
Skillfully mounted by Michael Grandage, the semi-fictional "Red" is essentially a disputation between Rothko (played authoritatively by Alfred Molina) and his young assistant, the budding painter Ken (a strong Eddie Redmayne).
As the two stretch canvas, mix paints and go about the other fascinatingly mundane tasks of their craft, Rothko, an intellectually brilliant and emotionally tormented artist known for his "mythomorphic" squares of color and blackness, pompously proclaims his artistic creed to Ken — holding forth on the importance of literature and philosophy, discoursing on Nietzsche and Picasso, dissing peers (i.e. Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol).
The didactic chatter has a highbrow ring, with all the name- and quote-dropping. And, of course, Ken must rebel against this bullying boss/mentor. And he will challenge the hyprocisy of Rothko's dedication to art as a pure "communion," while creating a series of canvases that will adorn the ultra-ritzy Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building.
I'm in the minority here, but "Red" struck me as an intelligent but pretentious twist on the great-man-with-warts-and-all bio-play formula.
What was most engaging was not all the theoretical claptrap about art, but watching these men in the studio, engaging in the physical and mental work of fabricating something new out of paint, canvas, color and space.
Misha Berson: email@example.com
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