Man! There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a brand new musical that works. I was enthralled from beginning to an end by A Bronx Tale–currently getting its world-premiere production at the Paper Mill Playhouse. From the very first moments, it simply had the feel of a winner. And I was engrossed. It’s rare, and memorable, when that happens. (Of course, the opposite occasionally happens, too–there are some musicals that simply feel like losers from start to finish. I’m remembering watching some excruciatingly lame Broadway musicals–like Saturday Night Fever–and feeling bad for the actors working so hard on stage, who had to know they were in a show that was dreck.)
I would never have guessed that A Bronx Tale–a dark property dealing with gangsters, racial strife, and tough life-choices—would have made a good musical; it’s not an obvious candidate for musicalization. But nearly everything about this production felt just right to me.
I loved the strong, taut, and utterly believable book by Chazz Palminteri (who conceived and starred in the original autobiographical one-man Off-Broadway play of the same name in 1989-90, as well as its smash-hit film adaptation in 1993, and the original play’s successful revival on Broadway in 2007); he’s a hell of a writer. He knows how to leaven drama with honest wit. And he conjures up vividly the “old neighborhood” in which he grew up.
I liked the music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater, which not only served the story well, the score related the years depicted. (If I was reminded, a time or two, of, say, the Temptations, that was appropriate; they were huge in the late 1960s.) I liked the imposing, evocative settings by Beowulf Boritt (whose set for Act One at Lincoln Center was one of my favorites out of all the shows I’ve seen in recent years), the costumes by William Ivey Long. Jerry Zaks (who directed Palmimteri’s 2007 Broadway production of the original play) and Robert DeNiro (who directed and co-starred with Palminteri in the famous 1993 film) are credited as co-directors. They’ve done a terrific job.
And the show is impeccably cast, from its co-stars–Nick Cordero (whom I’d enjoyed so much in Bullets Over Broadway) as the charismatic gangster, Sonny, and Jason Gotay (whom I’d found likable and winning, starring in Spider-Man on Broadway) as Calogero (the role based on Palminter), who is torn between his hard-working father and the fascinating mob boss–right down to the minor supporting roles. Coco Jones makes an appealing love interest.(And her head tones are beautiful.) The actors playing the neighborhood wise guys have been cast with care. Joshua Colley, playing Young Calogero, is the best singer, among child actors, I’ve seen in years; he sailed up to a high E-flat with aplomb, hitting the final high note with a full, beautifully rounded voice. (He’s appeared in a couple of Broadway shows before–Newsies and Les Miz— but did not get the opportunities there, that he gets now, to fully display what he’s capable of.) The whole show is well-acted. Even the fights scenes (which too often feel fake in stage productions) were choreographed and executed effectively.
Oh, there were occasional little details in the show that didn’t quite ring true–but nothing significant, nothing that could not easily be fixed One small example: In the scene set in a record store in a black neighborhood, in 1968, an album by Gale Storm was on display; but Gale Storm was “yesterday’s news” everywhere by 1968, and certainly would not have been on display in a store catering to a black clientele in 1968; even minor visual elements in a scene ought to evoke a time and place with specificity. Seeing an album by TV star Gale Storm (“My Little Margie”)–who recorded some white-bread cover versions of black hits in the 1950s–in what was supposed to be an urban black record store circa 1968–briefly took me out of the moment. And the poster of Sinatra in the record store showed a very young Sinatra from the late 1940s, not the mature Sinatra of the show’s time period, which further blurred the sense of time and place. But those are minor quibbles. .
But I loved the show. I hope it transfers to Broadway. It makes some of the other new musicals I’ve seen in recent months (like Bandstand and Allegiance) seem amateurish by comparison.
A Bronx Tale does not end happily, on an upbeat note–which may be a problem for some ticket buyers. The gangster, Sonny, whom we’ve all grown attached to over the course of the show, is killed just before the end. And Cologero realizes then that he must leave the old neighborhood. This is dramatically necessary, of course, and true-to-life. But it also means that the musical will be, for some audience members, something of a downer towards the end. I’m OK with that, because it’s truthful. However, there are some ticket buyers who prefer musicals that send them out on an “up” note, cheerfully singing the title song. And this isn’t one of those shows. I loved A Bronx Tale: The Musical. The guest I brought was bothered that it got so dark towards the end. She prefers lighter, happier fare. So she didn’t love the show quite the way I did. Not everyone will.
But I found the musical so satisfying that–even though I had tix for some very good shows in the days that followed–I did not want to see anything else for a good while. I just wanted to savor, and reflect upon, and bask in this very good musical. I hope it finds an audience on Broadway, and beyond. I’d go see it again, if I could. I found it a very exciting night in the theater.
In today’s column, I’ll be touching–at least briefly–on 10 different shows. Some I enjoyed quite a bit, others not so much. But A Bronx Tale was a very happy surprise for me. I’ve seen countless shows at Paper Mill Playhouse since the 1970s. A Bronx Tale was one of my favorites.
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Ouch! It pains me to write about Allegiance, the new musical at Broadway’s Longacre Theater.It is one of those shows that you want to love because its heart is in the right place. It deals with the internment of Japanese-Americans in camps during World War II. Some 120,000 Japanese Americans were unjustly taken from their homes and forcibly relocated to such camps. The show does a public service in shining light on this bleak period. And I will give the show credit for that. Its intentions are certainly good. The message it seeks to convey is good.
But if I have to evaluate it as a musical–as theater–I was disappointed. It felt a bit too overwrought, melodramatic for my tastes. It is the kind of show in which characters are forced to sing at great intensity whether or not the particular moment requires it. I found the music to be obvious, repetitive, monotonous, and derivative. To me, the score felt more like a pastiche of other shows (like, say, Miss Saigon) than a real score. The book, to me, felt no less amateurish. It is the kind of a show where you can safely predict that if one character seems especially perfect, that character is going to get killed–because the writers believe that would be tragic. And yet you feel nothing at his passing, because it only means one fewer stock character on stage; you haven’t bonded with him emotionally the way you would in a more artfully created musical.
I was happy to see, in leading roles, Telly Leung and Lea Salonga. They are both excellent actors, and they make the most of the material. I just wish they had better material to work with; I felt slightly embarrassed for them; they’re really too good for this libretto and score. I’ve seen them both in better shows in the past–Telly Leung in Rent and in Godspell; Lea Salonga in Miss Saigon, Flower Drum Song, and Les Miserables. (Lea Salonga also provided the singing voice for the princess in the Disney animated feature, Aladdin.)
I was delighted to see on stage George Takei, fondly remembered as “Mr. Sulu” on television’s “Star Trek.” He did a fine job in “Star Trek.” I love his posts on Facebook. And in countless interviews he’s done over the years, he comes across as a very decent, admirable, immensely likeable man. He gets first billing among the actors in this show, and that is wholly appropriate, since his own experiences inspired the show.
His family was unjustly incarcerated during the war. And his father’s principled opposition to loyalty oaths demanded back then of Japanese-Americans provided a central issue for this musical. He adds an invaluable note of authenticity and integrity to the production.
However, his acting in this show is uneven. When he spoke his first lines, I was uncomfortable; it sounded very much like an actor reciting lines, without quite knowing how to inflect them most effectively. (I fault not just him but also director Stafford Arima for letting him seem, at times, so wooden.) I wanted to love his work, but I winced. As an actor, he disappointed. But I was glad that, at age 78, he is on stage. His mere presence in the production–far more than the songs by Jay Kuo or the book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione–made the point that the internment of Japanese-Americans was real; he’s a living witness to thst injustice. And he is likeable.
I was also glad to see Scott Wise in the show, although I wish they could have found a way to make better use of him; he is such a charming song-and-dance man, whom I’ve enjoyed in countless shows, he is largely wasted here.
It struck me as weird, by the way, that this show’s writers are billed in bigger letters than any of the actors. Even the weakest actors in this production are contributing more to this show’s success than the writers of this show. Maybe the writers had better agents, who negotiated for them such prominent billing. But George Takei, Telly Leung, Lea Salonga certainly ought to be billed at least as prominently as the relative novices who wrote this show.
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I see far more theater than I generally get to comment upon in these pages. I’d like reflect on a number of plays–and players–that have impressed me for one reason or another, in the past year. The theater remains, for me, as place of infinite surprises. I’d like to talk about a few notable surprises.
* * *
I would never have guessed, when this season began, that the most memorable acting I’d witness would come from two of our senior-most players. But James Earl Jones, who is 85, and Cicely Tyson, who is 92, gave me a theatrical experience I will never forget. I hung on every word, watching these two old pro’s dig into D. L. Coburn’s enduring drama, The Gin Game at the John Golden Theater. A first-rate production. And the unusually responsive audience was clearly engaged throughout.
I’d enjoyed this play very much, when I’d caught its last production on Broadway, co-starring the late Julie Harris and Charles Durning, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly, in 1997. In fact, I never expected to see a better production of it. (In that case, I came into the theater almost pre-sold, because Julie Harris was then my favorite living dramatic actress; I never missed her work.) But this new production, to my great surprise, had greater impact on every level–the acting, the direction, even the set design by Riccardo Hernandez; this was an even more fully realized production than the last one.
James Earl Jones is, quite simply, one of the greatest actors I’ve ever witnessed on stage; he commands attention from first word to last. Tyson is not quite on his exalted level, but she made a good foil for him, sparring with him gently, but firmly. It is a challenging play; these stars were utterly believable, and very human, and evoked our compassion, even as we saw quite clearly their flaws. This was the strongest dramatic production I’ve seen this season, to date. I’m very grateful I got to see it.
Incidentally, this production–and a few others I’ve seen recent months–reminded me of the huge difference a strong actor can make. Let me explain.
Julie Harris was such a quietly commanding performer on stage, she dominated the production of The Gin Game I saw in 1997. The character she played, “Fonsia Dorsey,” seemed the more important of the two; it was as if the play was more about her than about the other character (played by Charles Durning), “Weller Martin.” Not because the script said that but because Harris had more stage presence than Durning. I’m not knocking Durning; he was a wonderful actor, but he was not quite as intense as Harris, and Harris seemed the focus of attention.
But in this season’s production of The Gin Game, the opposite occurred. James Earl Jones has such enormous presence, his character, “Weller Martin,” seemed the more important of the two. Cicely Tyson is a very good performer, but not quite the match of Jones. And this production seemed to “star” Jones.
* * *
Something similar happened with Sylvia. I really enjoyed the new production of A. R. Gurney’s comedy Sylvia (at the Cort Theater, on Broadway, this season), just as I enjoyed the original production of Sylvia (at City Center Stage One, Off-Broadway, in 1995).
But here’s the difference. In the original production, because Sarah Jessica Parker was the strongest performer on stage–the one real star, with the most presence, in a generally strong cast–the play seemed to be about the character she played, the dog named “Sylvia.” The others sharing the stage with her seemed like secondary characters. Parker delivered an unforgettable star turn–sexy, funny, endearing; as rewarding a performance as any she’s offered in her career. A. R. Gurney quite appropriately dedicated the published copy of the script (which I bought in 1995) “to Sarah Jessica Parker, with love and amazement.”
In the 2015-2016 Broadway revival, because Matthew Broderick was the strongest performer on stage–the one real star, with the most presence, in a generally strong cast–the play seemed to be about the character he played, the middle-aged man who needs the companionship “Sylvia” provides. And the others sharing the stage with Broderick–as good as they all were–seemed of lesser importance. Immensely likeable, Broderick made us care for this sweet/sad aging man, who so very much had to have this dog in his life at this time. He got every possible laugh–Broderick is as deft and adroit a light comedian as anyone working in the theater today–and, at least as important, he won our sympathies, he drew us to him. He is a warm and open-hearted actor on stage. (As is Sarah Jessica Parker, which is why her portrayal of “Sylvia” touched us so deeply.) Annaleigh Ashford, playing “Sylvia” in the Broadway revival, was funny and frisky, and got the laughs. But she didn’t have the stage presence Parker had, nor was she as endearing. And thus the balance of the play shifted.
I enjoyed the play a lot–it made me laugh more than anything else I’ve seen this season, and it touched me, too. Broderick was perfectly cast. He works so effortlessly and naturally, I think it’s possible for some people to under-value what he’s doing on stage. But no one could have found more in the part. And even when he was uttering lines that I know very well, from owning (and reading, and re-reading) the script all of these years, it felt utterly spontaneous, as if he were just someone speaking his mind, just trying to get by, day by day–the way so many of us do. I wish they could have found a “Sylvia” quite as luminous and magical as Sarah Jessica Parker was in the original production. But still, it was a very fun night. Kudos to Broderick and Gurney, and director Dan Sullivan, and cast members Ashford, Robert Sella, and Julie White.
I cherished the moment, near the very end, when we were shown a projection of what was supposed to be the actual dog, “Sylvia.” That put such a nice button on the night. (They followed that by showing projections of other dogs, apparently belonging to members of the company; I wish they hadn’t done that, though, since it was anti-climactic, and diluted the impact of showing us “Sylvia.” The photo of “Sylvia” provided a perfect final beat, just by itself.)
I liked the show a lot. A.. R. Gurney’s a great favorite of mine, among playwrights of today. And of course Broderick is a past master at this kind of heartfelt comedy, as good as it gets. And Daniel Sullivan understands the play well. I’m very glad I got to see it.
* * *
If you like dance, An American in Paris (with timeless music by the Gershwins) remains a must-see. Impeccably maintained, it offers the best dancing of any Broadway show of recent years, and uses dancing brilliantly to advance the plot. Key moments–whether it’s a guy pursuing a standoffish gal or ultimately winning her–are communicated through dance, rather than through dialogue or song. It’s made as effective use of dance as any show since West Side Story.
The show took most people in the theater community by surprise, arriving with relatively little advance buzz, and with both a director/choreographer (Christopher Wheeldon) and a star (Robbie Fairchild) who were new to Broadway–and it’s garnered many well-deserved awards and accolades. Wheeldon certainly deserved the Tony Award he received for best choreography. (I’d see the show again just for his staging of the “Fidgety Feet” number.)
If you follow dance at all, Wheeldon and Fairchild were hardly unknowns. They may have been new to Broadway, but Wheeldon has long been doing impressive choreographic work with the New York City Ballet, where Fairchild has been a principal dancer. In fact, Wheeldon first staged the Gershwin orchestral composition “An American in Paris” as a ballet, for the New York City Ballet, about a decade ago. So in a sense, he’s been “warming up” for this Broadway production for quite a while. And the whole production has a sleek, glossy, ravishingly beautiful feel to it. This gorgeous production feels right at home in the Palace Theater.
The Broadway musical An American in Paris is, of course, based upon the celebrated 1951 MGM film musical (produced by Arthur Freed), which was written by Alan Lerner, featuring music of the Gershwins; the film was directed by Vincente Minnelli, and starred Gene Kelly (who also did his most of his own choreography ). That’s one of the all-time great film musicals, and the Broadway production owes a huge debt to the creators of that motion picture. It strikes me as bizarre that Alan Lerner, who wrote the script of the movie, is not acknowledged in the credits for this Broadway musical; there is only a vague line suggesting that the musical was “inspired by the film,” which is certainly insufficient. Craig Lucas–who did a fine job–wrote the libretto for this musical, using characters, situations, settings, etc. derived from Lerner’s original script; it seems unethical not to properly acknowledge Lerner. (Give credit where it’s due!)
On every level, this is a terrifically successful stage adaptation. And turning movies into stage musicals is far from easy; there have been many, many successful films–from Big, to Saturday Night Fever, to Gigi–that failed to transfer well to the stage. The Gershwin score, which sounds as fresh and rich as any score on Broadway today, is a joy from first notes to last. Gershwin’s symphonic poem “An American in Paris” received its debut as an orchestral work, with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Philharmonic, at Carnegie Hall, December 13, 1928. It was an immediate hit with both critics and the public (although Gershwin felt Damrosch dragged the tempos). The music was published and recorded for the first time in 1929. And “An American in Paris” was first included in a Broadway production that very same year, when Flo Ziegfeld presented the Broadway musical Show Girl (featuring a score by Gershwin, and a company that included Ruby Keeler, Eddie Foy Jr., Jimmy Durante, Frank McHugh, and Duke Ellington and his Orchestra) at the Ziegfeld Theater. Ziegfeld had had choreographer Albertina Rasch stage “An American in Paris” as a ballet, which became one of the high points of the musical. That was way back in 1929! Here we are, nearly 90 years later, and the music remains as beguiling as ever. And a “natural” for a ballet sequence.
I hope the show enjoys a long run. (I wish I could take all of my dancer friends to see it. Anyone would enjoy it. But especially dancers.) Fairchild will be leaving shortly. Garen Scribner, who’s been playing the leading role two performances a week, will take over the leading role when Fairchild leaves.
It won’t be an easy role to fill, when future cast replacements are needed in New York or elsewhere. (I’m assuming there will be productions in London and other major cities). There is a very small pool of performers who can dance at that level and also sing and act strongly enough to properly carry a Broadway musical. Cody Green, the Juilliard-trained dancer who starred in the last Broadway revival of West Side Story, would be an obvious choice. He’d be perfect for the show. There aren’t too many triple-threats who’d be just right for the role…. Gene Kelly, who was awarded a special Oscar for his work in the movie An American in Paris, left awfully big shoes to fill.
* * *
Speaking of “big shoes to fill,” I don’t envy Erin McCracken, whom I saw portraying the legendary Patsy Cline in an amiable two-character musical about her, Always… Patsy Cline, at the Westchester Broadway dinner theater. The production requires McCracken to offer, in effect, an impression of Cline and sustain it for a full-length show. That’s a lot to ask of any actor. (Biographical shows often work best if the actor is playing someone whose sound and style is not familiar to most theater-goers.) McCracken created a fine, if superficial, evocation of Cline, that–for me at least–was appealing at first but wore out its welcome before the night was over.
The real Patsy Cline sang from the heart, with total conviction and sincerity. She had a remarkable voice. But with Cline, it wasn’t just a matter of having a great voice. She touched us an artist, she compelled our attention, because she was opening up to us, sharing herself with us. McCracken’s performance, agreeable as it was, did not have nearly the emotional depth of Cline’s work. If her voice sort of choked up at a certain point in a song, it was because Cline’s voice had done something like that when singing the song. But Cline was expressing herself; McCracken was copying someone else’s original style; there’s a mighty big difference.
Oh, I enjoyed the show, to a degree. I liked hearing, once again, some of the great songs that Cline loved to sing, including “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Honky Tonk Angels,” “Anytime,” “Lovesick Blues,” and “Crazy.” I always loved Patsy Cline, and I was glad to hear these terrific numbers once again. McCracken’s voice is, happily, reminiscent of Cline’s in timbre. Ted Swindley, who wrote this pleasant-but far-from-compelling show, gives us an appealing character sketch of a very down-to-earth star. And Susan Fletcher does an outstanding job, playing a fan who befriends Cline. (She is actually the stronger actor of the two actors, although she has the smaller role.)
The show skims the surface of Patsy Cline’s life. We don’t learn too much about her as a person. McCracken has a good voice, and she copies Cline’s phrasing well. Her performance was agreeable. But I felt, long before the night was over, that I’d experienced everything that she and the show had to offer. And found myself counting the number of songs still to go, before the show would be over. The final number–“Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home”–was great fun. But for me the show would have had greater impact if it were a couple of numbers shorter.
(One minor complaint–the program failed to name the author of “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home.” But it’s always good to give credit, if possible, to authors. Hughie Cannon was the songwriter who gave us the enduringly popular “Bill Bailey”; his name should be included in the credits.)
The audience seemed to enjoy the show. McCracken does a decent job of reminding us of Cline. But I’d much rather listen to recordings of Cline herself, or watch video clips of her singing. She was a star.
Someday I’d like to hear McCracken singing songs on her own, without being hemmed in by having to imitate anyone else. I have a hunch I might enjoy that more. I liked her essential sound.
* * *
I’m grateful I got to see John Cullum in the Irish Rep’s production of A Child’s Christmas in Wales (by Dylan Thomas, directed and adapted by Charlotte Moore, with music direction by Mark Hartman). Cullum–who has enlivened dozens of Broadway shows over the years (including Camelot, Shenandoah, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Deathtrap, 1776, Man of La Mancha, Show Boat, Urinetown, and The Scottsboro Boys)–is a star, and a showman, and utterly irresistible. He is 86 now. And he could read a telephone book and make you relish every syllable. He’s a wonderful pro; without trying to do so, he made the journeymen actors sharing the stage with him seem awfully green. They were merely reciting lines. He was giving a performance. I listened with joy to every line he spoke in that rich, resonant, wonderfully varied Tennessee voice of his. That was a treat.
* * *
I was happy to visit, once again, Finding Neverland–which I like—and check out some of the cast changes. I was particularly looking forward to seeing Terrence Mann in the duel roles of Charles Frohman and Captain Hook; I’ve really enjoyed his acting in many shows (Assassins, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Les Miz, Pippin, etc). And his characterizations of Frohman and Hook were, perhaps, more subtle and nuanced, and refined than those of his predecessor, Anthony Warlow (whom I’d last enjoyed as “Daddy Warbucks” in Annie). But Warlow–with his big, booming voice, and wonderfully big, broad portrayals–served the show better; he was was “hammier”–at least when I attended–and for this show, and these roles, that really worked. Mann is an excellent actor. Warlow was chewing the scenery more. But for this musical comedy, his larger-than-life characterizations were just right. “Hook” should loom larger than life. Jackson DeMott Hill, who’s as fine a child actor as any working in the theater today, was playing a different role (“George,” this time) than he’d played the last time I caught the show. And that role–simply because of his presence–became more important. When he’d played “Peter,” that role had seemed the most important of the juvenile roles; but now that he was playing “George” (with a less strong actor playing “Peter”), “George” took on more importance. Simply because he’s a stronger actor. Good child actors are quite rare; he’s one of the very good ones.
* * *
Disney’s Aladdin features many well-cast actors, but no individual really dominates the proceedings. It is as if the show itself is the star rather than any individual. If you liked the original Disney animated feature, you will like the stage adaptation, which feels very much like the cartoon brought to life. There are the same fun songs heard in the original cartoon, plus additional ones. The sets and costumes are as lavish, and sumptuous as one could hope to see. And there are some terrific special effects. (I sat in the very front row–my favorite place to sit in the theater–and I could not detect any wires holding the flying carpet aloft; the illusion of flying was perfect.)
Jonathan Freeman, who provided the voice of “Jafar” for the original cartoon, is playing the same role, “live,” in this production, more than a quarter-century later. The other principals I saw (Adam Jacobs, Courtney Reed, Trevor Dion Nicholas) did not work on the cartoon, but they might as well have–in looks, voices, and overall style they seemed astonishingly like Disney cartoon characters.
The next time I go, I would like to bring some of my younger relatives, because this is a perfect show for kids. Not bad for adults, by any means. But the ideal audience–the target audience–would be young people. I like the show. It is big and bright, and colorful, and funny as it should be. The score, by Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, Chad Beguelin (lyrics), and the book, by Chad Begulelin, are great fun. But the whole show is a terrific spectacle for young people. I could enjoy it, too. And I did. But I think I would have most appreciated this show when I was 10 or 11 years old. Broadway needs shows for all ages. This is great entertainment for the whole family–particularly the kids.
–CHIP DEFFAA, February 29th, 2016