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Matthew Broderick give one of the finest, subtlest performances of his career.

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[avatar user=”Chip DeFFaa” size=”96″ align=”left”] Chip DeFFaa, Editor-at-Large[/avatar]

As a lover of the performing arts, I’ll remember June of 2023 as when I saw Matthew Broderick give one of the finest, subtlest, and most delectable  performances of his career, in A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters at the Irish Repertory Theatre. I’ll remember, too, the uplifting idealism of Andrew Lippa’s newly revised version of his musical-theater oratorio I Am Harvey Milk, which I caught at the Princeton Festival; and I’ll remember enjoying the best Tony Awards show in years.  But I’ll also remember this as the month that some major cultural institutions made significant cutbacks and layoffs because performing-arts audiences have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.  And that does not bode well.  

Let’s start with the good news first.

At the Irish Repertory Theatre,  Off-Broadway in New York City, I had the pleasure of watching Matthew Broderick deliver the most wholly satisfying performance I’ve seen anyone deliver in a play in several years. I’ve never seen him in better form–speaking every word in such a wonderfully deft, understated way–offering just the right mix of hopefulness, insouciance, and pathos. He was so believable, I quickly forgot I was seeing an actor on the stage; it felt more like visiting with someone you haven’t seen in a long time.

He was co-starring with Laura Benanti in a limited engagement of A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly.  The play tells the story of two people–lifelong friends–through letters that they exchange. The characters are fictitious but wholly credible. (When Broderick spoke, I felt like I was at a Princeton University reunion, trying to connect the earnest, gray-haired fellow standing before me with the classmate I knew in my youth, listening with recognition as he summarized the ups and downs of his life.) The two characters are of privileged backgrounds–he’s more reserved, inhibited, duty-bound; she’s more free-spirited but also more vulnerable. And there’s a durable bond between them.

Many actors have performed Love Letters over the years. (It’s the late A. R. Gurney’s most-produced play.) I’ve never seen anyone carry off Love Letters better than Broderick.  It’s as if he were born to play this role. I hope he’ll have other chances to play it.  The limited-engagement at the Irish Rep sold out quickly.

I’ve always appreciated Laura Benanti since she was a teen at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse; she was just 18 when she subsequently made her Broadway debut in The Sound of Music.And she’s done fine work in many shows since then, including Nine, Into the Woods, Gypsy, and My Fair Lady. She is quite good in Love Letters, but not as consistent as I’d like. Some lines are delivered pitch-perfect.  She understands her character’s frustrations, insecurities, and brittleness. And she is likeable and endearing throughout.  

But there were times when Benanti pushed just a bit too hard, and the moments felt forced; I felt like I was watching an actor try too hard to land a line that would touch us more if thrown away. Broderick knows when to underplay a scene and let us discover o our own the character’s feelings. He does this so adroitly, with such utter naturalness, I watched in awe.  I don’t want to be too hard on Benanti.  She was, for the most part, really quite good.  (And might be even better if given time—in a longer run–to fully inhabit the role.)  But Broderick was sheer perfection.

I’ve followed Matthew Broderick’s career from the very beginning.  (And I admired the work of his late father, actor James Broderick, before him; James Broderick was solid.)  Matthew has always been very good; right from the start, he was always capable of giving us tremendously likeable performances; he could be irresistible on stage.  He performs with such ease, he doesn’t always get the credit he deserves as an actor.   But there was a subtlety and richness to his performance in Love Letters that greatly responded to.  A little something extra he does not always get to show, a reminder that he’s grown as an actor since he started out.  

This is the third play I’ve seen Broderick do at the Irish Rep. He’s done some of the very best work of his career in that little jewel-box of a theater. And the plays that he’s done there for co-producers Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly, are among the most memorable productions I’ve ever seen there. I’m very glad I got to witness this latest production. 

Someday, I’d love to see Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker do Love Letters together.  I think that’d be a big success, both commercially and artistically.   And both are certainly at home with Gurney’s well-crafted dialogue.  I remember quite happily enjoying both, individually, starring in different stage productions of Gurney’s Sylvia in New York.  I’d like to see some wise producer put them both in a production of Love Letters.  Oh, it’d be a natural.

* * *

I was lucky enough to attend the industry workshop presentation (at Open Jar Studios in midtown) of Bill Zeffiro and Chris Ceraso‘s new musical Houdini Among the Spirits. I would never write a review per se of a musical that’s in development. When you attend a workshop, you’re watching a reading of a work-in-progress, not a finished project. And you don’t judge a work that’s in the developmental stage–presented with just a week’s rehearsal–the same way that you judge a finished project. That wouldn’t be cricket. Normally, I make no comment at all if I attend a reading of a show that’s in development.

But I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge that I witnessed some really strong performances  by such top players as Robert Cuccioli (as Houdini) and Sarah Rice (as Houdini’s Ma). Beautiful work by both players. (Very well cast.)  And Gordon Stanley, and Stephine Kurtzuba, and William Thomas Colin, and more. Houdini is a terrific subject. The show is still being developed, still in the process of coming into focus. So Ican’t—and won’t–say any more.  But I’ll follow the development of this musical with interest. It’s one show I wish I’d been working on myself.  

I’ve always been fascinated by Houdini. I have a rare first-edition of his first book, and  rare recordings of both Harry  Houdini his widow, Bess. Houdini’s always intrigued me.  He even made an appearance as a character in one of my own shows, Mad About at the Boy, in our production at the 13th Street Theatre.  So I have an extra interest in this show (aside from the fact that Houdini—both as boy and as man—was well-represented in this workshop).

* * *

Even though I went to Princeton University and later lived for some years in the Borough of Princeton, every time I  visit Princeton I’m surprised anew—startled even—by just how beautiful Princeton is.   Walking around the campus and through the town, I’ll think, “How could I ever forget just how beautiful this place is? How did I take this all for granted when I lived here?”  But the sheer beauty comes as a kind of revelation every time I visit.    

The place holds so many good memories for me, it makes me happy just to be there.  And when I visited the other day, I took time to find the tree in which one very special friend and I carved our initials when we were young and still in the process of finding ourselves.  He died years ago; but I was delighted to find that that tree and our initials, carved with love  so many years ago, are still there.

Over the years, I’ve seen many performances in Princeton—some good, some bad.  Usually I’m going to performances just for my own pleasure, not to review them.  (I have a good time just being in Princeton, whether or not the performances are fun.)   But once in a while I’ll want to write about what I saw because it was just so well done.  This is one of those times…..

* * *

There was so much to love in Andrew Lippa’s musical-theater oratorio, I Am Harvey Milk, which I caught June 24th at the  Princeton Festival.  Harvey Milk (1930-1978) was a pioneering gay activist and political figure.  A member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he was the first openly gay elected official I was aware of.

This Princeton production was the world premiere of a newly revised version of Lippa’s work, which was originally written in 2013. And this was the first production conducted by Lippa himself.

Exactly the right tone was set from the very first notes. Benjamin Pajak, who was cast as young Harvey Milk, gets such a wonderfully beautiful sound as a singer. With the spirit to match. As a boy envisioning his life ahead (“An Operatic Masterpiece”), he projected feelings of hope and yearning and idealism, setting up the night well. And a lot is foreshadowed in that song—it’s a first-rate opener.

Pajak (who impressed me when I saw him starring in Oliver at City Center Encores in May) is really a remarkable singer–the best young singer I’ve seen come along in many years. And he sang with utter naturalness, no strain.

Adam Kantor (from The Band’s Visit and Rent) has the look and sound of a traditional leading man. His performance, in terms of vocal technique, was flawless. And I enjoyed it a lot; he’s an excellent singer. If a recording of this whole Princeton production were available, I’d give it a lot of play. And I’m very grateful that I got to see it.  

But–and this is just a matter of my own personal taste–I thought that Andrew Lippa, whom I saw play the role of Milk himself about a decade ago–was more touching and human and down-to-earth in the role. Not as good looking, not as flawless a singer as Kantor. But Lippa gave us a more approachable “Harvey Milk” on stage. And I felt that worked a little bit better.

Lippa came closer, at least for me, to evoking the real Harvey Milk. Milk had a sort of rumpled Everyman look about him.  His words were heroic and inspiring, But he wasn’t some toned, buff, godlike creature.  He looked like the sort of fellow you might find behind the counter in a camera shop.  (And he actually was working in a camera shop before he became famous in his 40s as a gay activist and political figure.)  And that made Harvey Milk easy  to relate to, for those of us who looked up to him back then.  

 I admired Milk’s integrity and bravery.  He was out, he was proud.  He was getting death threats, but that did not stop him.   When he was killed–and then when his killer, Dan White,  got only a five-year prison sentence for his crimes–many of us were outraged.  And channeled that energy into the fight for gay rights.  

When I first heard, some years ago, that Andrew Lippa—whose musical-theater work I enjoyed—was going to do an oratorio about Harvey Milk, I was apprehensive.  I envisioned a work about Milk’s death that would be would be dark, heavy, depressing.  But I Am Harvey Milk is a celebration of Milk’s life.   I think he would have enjoyed it very much. And would have had no complaints about being portrayed by the handsome and virile Adam Kantor.

The oratorio’s third major singer, Scarlett Strallen—who has numerous Broadway, London, and concert credits to her namehandled with ease the challenging soprano vocal lines she had to execute. I greatly appreciate her vocal skills. And Lippa has written great material for her. Ideally, though, the role calls for a warmer natural sound than Strallen’s got, to convey more compassion. Artists who’ve played this role in past productions include Laura Benanti and Kristin Chenoweth.   (Barbara Cook, in her prime, would have been absolutely ideal.)

Stacey Stevenson, as the Speaker, gave us the actual words of various public figures from Milk’s time. And she handled that well, letting the words of the individuals speak for themselves.

I’m old enough to remember the life and death of Harvey Milk. I remember those who passionately supported and opposed his trailblazing fight for gay rights. I remember all-too-well the homophobic Anita Bryant and the hateful Briggs Initiative (a proposed law  to ban gay individuals—and any people who even publicly advocated for gay rights—from working In public schools)  I remember Dan White, who assassinated Harvey Milk, and his absurd claim that a sugar overload turned him into a killer (the famed “Twinkie defense”).   But today’s younger audience members will not necessarily know these names or historical facts, and I think that including some program notes to put the oratorio in  context would be helpful. I have a hunch that some of the oratorio,presented without such program notesmay have gone over the heads of younger Princeton audience members.

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra and Chorus sounded splendid. Lippa (best known as the composer of such Broadway shows as “The Addams Family,” “Big Fish,” and “The Wild Party”) has given us a rich score.

For sheer beauty,Lippa’s “San Francisco”–near the end–was my favorite number in the show. But the opening number pulled us in right from the start. “Sticks and Stones”–a kind of “list songs” of slurs and slights–works. And “Friday Night at the Castro” was exceptional–conjuring up the spirit of the disco years, but sounding a cut above most of the music you were likely to hear in the clubs then. And the choral members were moving to the beat, which was fun.

Milk’s own words were used to telling effect. He was a powerful speaker, ahead of his time. His views–considered radical and extreme by most people in the 1970s–are happily accepted as part of the mainstream now. His words are still stirring.

The audience at the Princeton Festival responded with tremendous enthusiasm–with the kind of whooping and hollering you rarely hear at presentations of serious music. A good night.

* * *

I thought that this year’s Tony Awards presentation was the best in many years.  It had more musical numbers and less talk than most Tony Awards shows.  (Due to the WGA Writers Strike, the telecast was presented unscripted.)  It flew by faster.  And the numerous musical numbers helped give viewers far from NYC  a taste of today’s shows.  It was the best commercial for Broadway one could have had. (And ratings were a little higher this year than last year.) And almost every Broadway show featured on the broadcast got a bump up in box-office sales as result.  

Broadway needs the help. Box-office revenues, on average,  are still well below pre-pandemic levels.  The tourist trade certainly  has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.   And tourists—from all over the US, from Europe and from Asia–are needed to sustain long and hopefully profitable Broadway runs.  Many people who once commuted daily from the suburbs  to work in NYC and could have conveniently caught a Broadway show after work are now working from their homes instead; and they are often comfortable staying in their suburban cocoons watching Netlix rather than going into the city to enjoy nightlife.

I can’t predict the future.  But the current trends that I see worry me.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music–a major cultural institution–has just announced it is laying off 13% of its staff and reducing programming. I love the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I’ve seen terrific shows there. And have very good memories of performing on that great stage myself in my youth, with such fine actors as David Hartman and William Devane.  . But audiences at B.A.M. have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels and box-office revenues are significantly down.

I’m concerned because a number of important performing-arts venues are also reporting similar problems. The Metropolitan Opera House has been forced to reduce its number of productions. Out in Los Angeles, the prestigious Mark Taper Forum is cutting back operations heavily. And very few performances on Broadway are selling out these days.  (Plenty of great shows are available, most nights, at TKTS.  A lot of seats are still going unsold. And some highly praised shows are struggling to stay alive.)  

Is this situation temporary?  Or has a kind of “new normal” arrived?  Time will tell.

The pandemic may be over–but big-city nightlife has not recovered yet.

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