Theater On Broadway and Off, post-Sandy
The New York theater scene is having a slow open, but so far has produced such items as a delightful Broadway revival based on a Dickens tale, a brand-new musical based on the Texas novel ”Giant” and a modern comedy a la Chekhov
Seattle Times theater critic
The juice was back on. And Broadway and Off Broadway houses were in full operation with surprising speed by the time I hit town for a short stay last month in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
In addition to witnessing the opening of “Scandalous!,” the musical by Kathie Lee Gifford about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (which had a tryout run in Seattle, but after a rough reception is closing its short Broadway run Sunday), I caught several other works of interest and got a bead on the current stage scene.
Unlike Hollywood, Broadway saves the unveiling of its big-deal new attractions (mainly musicals) until just before the spring — that is, the Tony Award nomination deadline.
During this holiday seasons, limited-engagement family fare is luring people to the Great White Way (“Elf,” “A Christmas Story”).
And some notable screen actors are drawing more interest than the shows they’re in. The star set includes Jessica Chastain from “The Help” and Dan Stevens from “Downton Abbey” in the Henry James drama “The Heiress;” Katie Holmes in Theresa Rebeck’s “Dead Accounts;” and Debra Winger in David Mamet’s critically blasted new work, “The Anarchist.”
Some well-anticipated Broadway revivals staged by Seattle alum opened in recent days: former Seattle Repertory Theatre head Daniel Sullivan’s mounting of Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” starring Al Pacino; and ex-Intiman Theatre honcho Bartlett Sher’s take on the Clifford Odets’ boxing drama “Golden Boy,” at Lincoln Center.
Here are my short takes on several other current New York shows of interest:
“Giant” (Public Theatre, Off Broadway)
Edna Ferber’s epic, multigenerational novel about a Texas ranching clan barely squeezed into the supersized Hollywood movie version released in 1956, or into Book-It Repertory Theatre’s ambitious, 2005 Seattle stage adaptation of the book.
This handsome, overly earnest new musical drawn from the Ferber saga also seems too big for its cowhand britches, as Sybille Pearson’s script strives to stick with the 20-year arc of the central relationship — the much-tested marriage between Bick and Leslie Benedict (excellent Brian d’Arcy James and Kate Baldwin) — while following the offshoot plots of a half-dozen related characters, and the bridging of several cultures (Old and New West, Eastern Seaboard, Mexican).
The lush Michael John LaChiusa score blends sweeping lyricism with bluegrass, country-and-western and mariachi. Much of the fully orchestrated composition is just lovely to the ear.
But it’s telling that there is barely a moment of dance in this eventually plodding “Giant.” Even during a fiesta and other scenes crying out for spirited choreography, the shows misses opportunities to get off the page, out of its head and onto its feet.
“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” (Studio 54, on Broadway)
There are two mysteries to this richly diverting entertainment.
One is the outcome of the suspenseful tale woven by Charles Dickens, which lay unfinished in a novel he couldn’t complete before his death.
The second mystery is why this delightful Rupert Holmes musical, which earned five Tony Awards for its original 1985 production, is only now receiving its first Broadway revival.
Better late than never. Inventively couched by composer-lyricist-author Holmes within a Victorian music hall “panto,” the tale of deranged lust and (possibly) murder is played as great cheeky fun, with the actors exuberantly switching between high-melodrama Dickens roles and jocular identities as veteran 19th-century British theater artistes.
They stroll down the aisles, whip up applause and elicit the audience’s help in deciding how the show should end. If the young blade Edwin Drood was murdered, then who done it?
The cast and Roundabout Theatre’s Studio 54 are gloriously decked out in Victorian finery, the rousing mood is infectious. And thanks be for a company that includes the ageless Chita Rivera as an opium den hostess with a secret; the twinkly Irish elder Jim Norton as the master of ceremonies; and the very impressive Will Chase (from TV’s “Smash”) as a did-he-or-didn’t he church choirmaster with a Jekyll-and-Hyde complex.
“Edwin Drood” had a recent student production in Seattle at Cornish College. If it heads out on tour (and it should) Seattle should be on the schedule for this splendid Broadway staging.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (Lincoln Center Theatre)
The Russian characters in Anton Chekhov plays gaze at the changing world around them with dread, melancholy and rueful humor.
Contemporary scribe Christopher Durang adds some zaniness and camp to the borscht in this amusing — sometimes deliciously so — new comedy of angst.
New York stage regular David Hyde Pierce makes a perfectly baleful Vanya, opposite wonderful Kristine Nielsen as his sister Masha, whose disappointment and inertia are enlivened by spasms of zaniness.
Afflicted by the Chekhovian names their late parents burdened them with, and long hibernating in their family’s comfy country home, the siblings’ wistful torpor is rattled by the arrival of their obnoxious sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver), a Hollywood actress, and Masha’s idiotic boy toy, Spike (Billy Magnussen).
The tense reunion, and the prospect of a most unwelcome eviction, give Durang ample room for spearing and self-deprecating one-liners, sight gags (funny Weaver got up in a scary Snow White outfit for a costume party), a Maggie Smith impersonation, double entendres, clever nods to the Chekhov play canon, voodoo spells and, of course, unstinting ennui.
Like his Russian namesake Uncle Vanya, Pierce’s character ultimately blows his top and rails at life’s injustices — in this case, at a coarsened, empty American culture that he can’t fit into, and wants no part of.
It’s a rather sour, self-serving rant. But among a graying Broadway theater audience, there was warm applause and appreciation for it.
Misha Berson: email@example.com