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ON THE TOWN… with Chip Deffaa … September 3rd 2018

“Be More Chill” is a phenomenon. Those don’t come along very often. But if you attend theatre regularly, year after year, and have a good eye, you can spot them instantly. Bear with me for a minute. Let me tell you what I mean by a “phenomenon.”

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For my column this week, I’d like to both look ahead–discussing a new show that I think has a very bright future, “Be More Chill”–and look back–discussing some of the memorable star turns I witnessed this past season.

“Be More Chill” is a phenomenon. Those don’t come along very often. But if you attend theatre regularly, year after year, and have a good eye, you can spot them instantly. Bear with me for a minute. Let me tell you what I mean by a “phenomenon.”

“Avenue Q” was a phenomenon. I heard the first songs that Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx had written, as they were creating the show, in BMI Workshop presentations–and I was so impressed by the songs’ freshness, originality, and connection to the present moment, I told their creators on the spot that if they couldn’t find proper commercial producers, I’d produce the show myself on a shoestring, as part of my own theatre festival. Of course they soon did find excellent producers, and the show became a huge international hit. Audiences–particularly young audiences–simply took to it; they saw themselves reflected in the show. This year”Avenue Q” celebrated its 15th anniversary in New York.

“Rent” was a phenomenon. When it first opened, Off-Broadway, at the New York Theatre Workshop, it exploded into that space with an energy that was overwhelming. And the audience responded in kind. You didn’t have to wait for the reviews to come out. The reaction of that young audience was unforgettably fierce. The passion was real.

And oh, of course there were some friends of Jonathan Larson’s in the house–there always are some friends of the creators in the house when a show is opening; in fact, that night I was actually sitting with a friend who’d been in an earlier workshop presentation of “Rent.” And friends will always be supportive of shows; that’s a given. But Jonathan Larson was still largely unknown at that point. And the energy in the theatre was simply extraordinary–far more than some loyal friends could have generated; people were clearly “getting” the messages the show was delivering, and they were wholeheartedly affirming their assent.

I subsequently took many of my friends, young and old, to see “Rent.” It provoked strong reactions. A few of my friends absolutely hated it; but those who loved it really loved it, and insisted they had to see it again. When I took my young niece Alexandrah, it became her favorite show; in the years to come, she wound up going, somehow, to see it 30 times. It had tremendous meaning for her. Her parents, by contrast, told me they simply didn’t understand “Rent.” A generational thing.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” –created by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask–was a phenomenon. Mitchell pitched that show to seemingly every commercial producer in existence, and got one turn-down after another. For several years, he performed the show on a shoestring budget in little New York clubs and bars (like Squeezebox). I still have the original demo cassette tape he gave me, recorded “live” in one of those clubs. The show built a cult following, entirely by word of mouth. (The show was then considered “underground”; and there was no money for advertising.)

When “Hedwig” finally set an official opening night at the Jane Street Theatre, Off-Broadway, I had no idea how critics might respond. I was at the opening, not as a reviewer, just for fun. I sat with Clive Barnes, who was reviewing it for The Post, and he gave no hint whether he liked it or not. He watched it, poker-faced. (He wound up giving it a rave.) After the performance, I congratulated Mitchell on stage. I said I hoped they’d be able to make a cast album. He said he hoped so, too, but no one had expressed interest. And right there and then, a man standing by us, overhearing our conversation, said to Mitchell, “You haven’t made a cast album? I’m prepared to write you a check for $40,000 right now, to make that happen.” The audience reaction in the Jane Street Theatre was so ardent, it was clear this show was speaking strongly to some people. Not everybody. But it was fresh and vital, and unlike anything else in town. And it went on to international success.

And that brings us to “Be More Chill.”

If I were an investor, I’d put money into the off-Broadway musical “Be More Chill.” I haven’t felt that way, quite so strongly, since “Avenue Q” was in development, some 15 years ago. I’m not saying it’s a perfect show, but it’s an absolutely perfect show for its intended audience–young people of today. I caught a random Sunday matinee performance at the Pershing Square Signature Center. And the theatre was jam-packed with the youngest, most enthusiastic audience I’ve seen anywhere since the early days of “Rent.” The creators of this show have got something. It’s one show I would have loved to have worked on myself. (Not that they need any outside help.) I had a great time. I want to see it again. That audience was roaring its approval. It felt more like I was at some tribal ritual than a typical night in the theatre. (That alone took me back to the early days of “Rent.”)

Kudos to all involved, from composer Joe Iconis to writer Joe Tracz, to choreographer Chase Brock, to star Will Roland and company. There is so much to like here. It’s a simple, unassuming, but, I think, curiously important show.

Will Roland and the cast of BE MORE CHILL. photo by MARIA BARANOVA

From that stage, I felt, youth is speaking to youth in its own voice. The young characters in this show have a ring of truth to them. The gawky lead character, making it clear early on in the show that he likes to masturbate, feels more real–and of the current moment–than any youth we might find in, say, Disney’s “High School Musical” (as well-crafted as that show is; Disney productions are always professionally written and mounted). But the typical young Disney characters feel closer to “Barbie” and “Ken” dolls than to any of the youths in “Be More Chill.” The characters in this show repeatedly reminded me of real youths I know. (I never got that feeling with “High School Musical.”)

And the teens packing the house at the performance I attended responded with complete recognition: a real bonding of audience and material was taking place, in a way that is both rare and wonderful. The current Off-Broadway engagement is strictly a limited run (through September 30th). But mark my words–this show will have a life. And, if the producers act wisely, a very good one.

They’re sitting on a phenomenon, and I hope they make wise moves. The show was first done–for just one short month in 2015–at the humble Two River Theatre (in Red Bank, NJ), which commissioned it. It got mixed reviews, but proved a solid hit with audiences. Ghostlight Records released a cast album. There was no money to really advertise the album–but the album and show began developing an exceptionally loyal fan base, just by word-of-mouth. One of the tracks from the cast album, “Michael in the Bathroom,” has had 2.2 million viewings thus far on For any show, that would be a great marker of public interest. For a show that has played so few public performances thus far, that is an incredible total. But the songs are reaching people. The kids sitting nearest me in the theatre–two brothers ages 17 and 14 from suburban Morristown. New Jersey–told me they’d first heard about the “Be More Chill” cast album from friends, and began listening to it. They bought the album, never dreaming they’d someday be able to see the show “live.” When they heard the show was going to get a New York production, they ordered tickets. They weren’t influenced by theatre critics’ reviews of the show; they hadn’t read any. But they told me they listen to the album a lot. (I don’t blame them. I bought the album myself. As well as the original novel that inspired the show.)

The current production has a wonderful animal vitality and honesty. The same qualities that make it perfect for contemporary teens will push away some older traditional theatre-goers. If I were producing it, I’d transfer this production to a large Off-Broadway house–or create a space, if need be, if no suitable space were readily available. (The big Off-Broadway house Stage 42, which might seem a logical venue, is currently booked.) Maybe I’d see if the Liberty Theatre on 42nd Street–with 499 theatre seats installed, to make it qualify as an Off-Broadway, not Broadway venue–could be secured.

The current Off-Broadway production–which sparkles from start to finish–doesn’t need to be expanded or enhanced. It basically needs to be moved to a suitable house. And I don’t think I’d be looking for a Broadway house; if you put it in too big of a house, it could die. (“Hedwig” found exactly the right venue for its original New York run, and drew good houses, Off-Broadway, for a couple of years; had it tried for Broadway right away, it would have failed.) But put “Be More Chill” in the right space, priced right, and young people–and some older folks curious to see what all the excitement’s bout–should keep it running for a long, long time.

“Be More Chill” has simply got something. (I felt that way about “Hedwig,” too the first time I saw it, and heard the first rough, raw “live” demos, too.) Something real, and fresh, and vital, and true. Something organic. And it says a lot that the current limited engagement–with no ad campaign to support it–quickly sold out.

The show itself is an unusual mix of new and old. It feels and looks “of the moment.” Joe Tracz and Joe Iconis have captured well the sound of teens of today talking. Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design has an utterly contemporary computer-era feel. Charlie Rosen’s wonderfully eclectic, oddly retro musical arrangements–complete with eerie sounds of a Theremin (plus trumpet, sax, guitar, keyboards, flugabone, vocoder, recorder, and electronics)–make me think of a 1950s science-fiction movie, trying to sound futuristic. And it works!

The storyline is contemporary. Based on the novel “Be More Chill” by Ned Vizzini, the hero of our tale (superbly played by Will Roland) feels he’s an outcast, a loser in high school. He opts to take a pill that he’s told will make him popular. He’ll be surrendering self-control to the control of a computer program. But he’ll have all of the answers. And, he’s told, he’ll be happy.

So the story is fresh and new.

But it is also timeless. In every age, there have been young people who’ve felt lost, who’ve wondered what price might be worth paying for the sake of popularity, what sacrifices are worth making for the sake of feeling you have all the answers. And the choices our hero must make (should he abandon his best friend, if that will help him gain admittance to the popular clique?) are choices that kids are making in the real world every day. And will always be making. The creative team has told the story well.

Oh, I think a bit of judicious pruning could make the show even stronger. There were moments when my interest sagged a bit, because a song seemed repetitive and was going on too long; I wanted the story to keep moving forward, and I felt the essential point of the song had already been made. But such flaws are minor. And the show, as a whole works–and works brilliantly–right now. I certainly think some trimming might help make the show even better; but if the creative team didn’t want to cut anything, I’d be OK with that, too. Because–like “Rent,” which is also a bit unwieldy and messy in spots–the show lives. And it’s reaching audiences.

“Be More Chill” is impeccably cast. Will Roland, Gerard Canonico, George Salazar, Stephanie Hsu, Jason Tam, Lauren Marcus, Jason Sweettooth Williams are complete and utter delights. Director Stephen Brackett has just the right light touch. The tone is right. (The cast works. And these actors–even if some might be closer to 30 than to 18–made me believe they were teens. But if some director or producer someday wanted to take a chance on casting actual teenagers to play teens–which is rarely done in the New York theatre–there are some talented teen actors who could do well with a show like this: Jackson DeMott Hill, Oscar Williams, Sydney Lucas, Erich Schuett; the talent exists.)

Will Roland and George Salazar in BE MORE CHILL. photo by MARIA BARANOVA

And oh! did I mention the choreography of Chase Brock, who seems born to do this show? It fits the subject matter masterfully. It’s youthful and exuberant, and consistently aids the story-telling, without calling attention to itself. Brock’s choreography, for this shows, is perfect in its way. Small, well-crafted details–the way Brock, for example, has two of the leads moving in synch on “Two-Player Game” to show their bond–are positioned and executed perfectly. And bigger movements, like the joyous, stylized dancing at a party–that goes bad, as parties almost always do in teen dramas–help take the show to great heights, when needed. I’ve been a great admirer of Brock’s work from the beginning. (He’s always worth investing in.) This is a first-rate showcase for his gifts. An excellent match of artist and material.

Oh, there is much to enjoy here. And it is a miracle that so many people who are not just talented but are just right for this particular show are working together here. The show should have a bright future. There should be some awards a-coming for Joe Iconis, Joe Tracz, Chase Brock, Beowulf Boritt, Will Roland and company. I can’t wait to see it again!

When I got home, I told two of the neighborhood kids, who are 14 or 15, that I’d felt like I’d just seen them on stage. These two buddies are devoted to each other; they’re self-described outcasts at school. (“We are hardly among the ‘famous kids’ at the high school,” is how one once memorably put it to me. I had never before thought in terms of “famous kids” in high school.) They love their computer games; to a large extent, that is their world. They’ve repeatedly invited me to play “Fortnite”–their favorite game–with them. I’m flattered, of course–but I can’t quite cross that generational gap when it comes to games; that’s their world, not mine.

But I told them about “Be More Chill.” And I showed them a video of one appealing number from the show, “Two-Player Game.” And they recognized their lives in it. And asked to see the video again. They’re not theatre critics; they’re just kids (and hardly among “the famous kids” at their high school, as they’ve told me). But they asked if I could take them to that show. Which they’d never have asked, if I’d have shown them a clip from, say, “Carousel,” “Phantom,” or “My Fair Lady.” (I don’t think I could have gotten them to sit through clips from those shows.) I’m sure they’d love “Be More Chill.” It’s a lot of fun. And I’m sure there’s a market for that show. It doesn’t need big “name” stars. Kids are finding the Off-Broadway production right now. It just needs an open-ended run in the right space.

* * *
When I look back on the 2017-2018 theatre scene, I really count my blessings. There were some performances I’m very glad I witnessed. Let me recall a few…..

* * *

I see an awful lot of theatre. I’m not easily impressed. But watching Bernadette Peters in “Hello, Dolly!” was, for me, one of the great nights I’ve had in the theatre. Musical-comedy perfection! Peters was wonderful from start to finish–every inch a star, and vivid and alive, and surprising, and spontaneous–and even, at times, unexpectedly vulnerable. I’ve never seen her give a better performance, and I’ve been enjoying her since I first saw her in “George M!” in 1968–fully 50 years ago!

Bernadette Peters in HELLO, DOLLY!_ Photo by Julieta Cervantes

I might add, the five key supporting players were all in peak form. The singing, the comedy, the acting–everything was there. And the whole show has jelled perfectly. Most of the supporting players were different from when I saw the production with Bette Midler last year. And the replacements nailed it.

Santino Fontana did the best acting job I’ve ever seen, playing “Cornelius.” I believed every word of his monologue about falling in love for the first time. I have seen that show so many times, I know it inside out–and yet I hung on his every word, believing that he had fallen in love right then, right there, before our eyes. He is an unusually gifted musical-theatre actor.

Charlie Stemp–new to me–was a perfect “Barnaby,” as good or better than any I’ve every seen. Funny, endearing, and an incredible dancer. He and Fontana both have star qualities, and it really helps the production to have these supporting roles played so unusually well.

Molly Griggs was a wonderful Minnie Fay. Kate Baldwin is fully at home as “Mrs. Malloy.” And the comedy, which sometimes felt forced when I saw the show last year, feels warm and natural now.

I enjoyed Victor Garber thoroughly as Vandergelder; he was a good choice to play opposite Peters, and much better suited to the role of Vandergelder than was David Hyde Pearce, who played opposite Midler. (When I saw Pearce as Vandergelder, I wrote that the ideal actor for the role would have been Lewis J. Stadlen, who has more of the crust and backbone and strength the role calls for; happily, I note he’s been cast to play Vandergelder in the national tour of “Hello, Dolly!,” starring Betty Buckley.) I still thought that the song they’ve given Vandergelder to open the second act of this production to be a waste of time; Gower Champion cut that song, “A Penny in My Pocket,” from the original production of “Hello, Dolly!” before it opened on Broadway, and I think Champion made the right call. It tells us a bit of Vandergelder’s backstory, but, ehhh, the show flows much better without it.

The ensemble dancing was sensational! (Oh my! When those dancers leaped across the orchestra pit in the title number–it’s just stunning.) And Santo Loqasto’s settings were gorgeous. Over the years, I’ve seen productions of “Hello, Dolly!’ many times and many places–not just in New York, but in Washington DC., Connecticut, Texas, New Jersey–with performers both good and bad. I enjoyed Bette Midler a lot. She’s a unique talent, and I relished seeing her do her thing. She was brash and good fun. (I often felt like I was watching “The Bette Midler Show,” and I liked that.) But Peters was connecting with other cast members better, and touching the audience more. She could be surprisingly moving. The events felt more believable. We were included more. And I liked that. First-rate musical theatre.

The revival of “Hello, Dolly!,” which I enjoyed a lot, with both Midler and Peters, was the best musical-theatre revival in many years. And it commanded top ticket prices. And yet–and this worries me–it did not make much money. Investors in this smash Broadway hit only made a profit of about 5% on their money. Not very much at all, considering the huge box-office revenues. (Investors in the original Broadway production, back in the 1960s, reaped far, far greater returns on their investments.) Running costs were high with this revival. Much was spent on advertising. The show made some money. But not very much, considering what a sensation this revival was.

* * *

Another performance from this season that I will long remember was given by Matthew Broderick in the play “The Sea Farer” by Conor McPherson, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, at the Irish Repertory Theatre. It was one of the best theatrical experiences I had this season. Just superb work. And the production sort of snuck up on you, gradually gathering its powers. Broderick was in excellent form.

Matthew Broderick

There was one moment in the production I know I’ll never forget–Broderick’s character unexpectedly revealing himself. Broderick’s presence on stage,his steely resolve, and his sudden display of restrained power made for a moment of tremendous impact. All the more surprising because Broderick’s character had seemed so unassuming up until then. A moment of first-rate acting–as rewarding as anything I saw on stage this year.

“The Sea Farer” was terrifically well-cast and well-directed. This is a very good play, and it was very well done. I’m a great admirer of Broderick’s work, generally. But the best work I’ve seen him do anywhere, in recent years, has been in plays by Conor McPherson, in the intimacy of the Irish Rep–“The Sea Farer” this year, and “Shining City” in 2016. Those were both among the best productions I’ve ever seen at the Irish Rep, which is saying a lot.

* * *

I’m very glad I was able to attend the opening night of the 2018 Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” Great theatre. It was not just a triumph for its star, Denzel Washington, and its director, George C. Wolfe, it was a triumph for the whole ensemble, which was extraordinarily strong.

Yes, I cherished Washington’s performance from the moment he made his entrance, grandly, strutting down the aisle and stepping up onto the stage, and tipping his straw boater hat to the company. But I also loved the strong performances of David Morse, Colm Meaney, Michael Potts, and Bill Irwin.

The Iceman Cometh

And there was a breakout performance by newcomer Austin Butler–making his Broadway debut–that was as vivid as one could hope for. (I’m glad I got to tell him briefly, at the after-party, just how much I enjoyed his work.)

Wolfe’s staging was brilliant. So was the scenic design of Santo Loquasto and the lighting design of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. This production had me, right from the mood-setting piano rendition of “The Curse of an Aching Heart,” at the very top of of the show. So many nice little touches… like having the tarts walk in singing, a capella, Irving Berlin’s “Everybody’s Doin’ it Now.”
And mostly, the night remained a triumph for the late master playwright Eugene O’Neill, who created the characters we came to know, and feel for, and care about, over the course of a four-hour production,. And you do care about them, and wonder what secrets they are holding, and are caught in suspense as the story unfolds. At the center was Denzel Washington (as “Hickey”), urging everyone else to be honest with themselves, while making you wonder how honest he is with himself. But one actor after another got his moment…. I liked the production of “The Iceman Cometh” that I saw on Broadway 20 years, starring Kevin Spacey. But this new production, overall, was notably stronger and more theatrical. And did a a far better job of pulling you in. Director George C. Wolfe cast this production wisely. And he, like O’Neill, is one hell of a story-teller. It was very good theatre. And the opening-night after-party was fun, too. Everyone in the production had done good work. They knew it. Morale was high. It was fun to be part of that atmosphere.

* * *

Oh, I’m counting my blessings, too, that I got to see Melissa Errico and Stephen Bogardus in “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” at the Irish Repertory Theatre. I wish they could have recorded a cast album of this production, like they did with their original production of
“Finian’s Rainbow.” This production was, along with “Finian’s Rainbow,” one of the best musical productions the Irish Repertory Theatre has ever presented.

I’ve always liked seeing Bogardus and Errico on stage–both separately and together. They costarred on Broadway in Cole Porter’s “High Society.” And that was good fun; lots of songs. But I liked this show more; the story-line was more intriguing and surprising. Bogardus and Errico were also playing more interesting and nuanced characters here. And they’ve grown as performers since they did “High Society.” They have more to give to us now.

Melissa Errico and Stephen Bogardus
Photo by Carol Rosegg

“On a Clear Day…” features music by Burton Lane, and book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; Charlotte Moore adapted and directed the show; Ciarán O’Reilly was the producer. And I was hooked from the very first bit of singing heard in the show–the ensemble giving us a taste of the title number.

And that had to be about the best-sounding ensemble in any New York show, on or off-Broadway in 2018: pure, well-matched, well-blended voices. No microphones were used–or
were needed–in this production. You could really savor the natural beauty of human voices. I was hooked, too, by Jim Morgan’s airy scenic design–as appealing and appropriate as any he’s ever created. He also somehow made the theatre feel bigger than it actually is, with his Chagall-like designs.

In additional to the well-known title song (which I’ve always liked), the score also features such memorable numbers as “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” and “Come Back to Me.” The latter, filled with drama, was a solo number for Bogardus, and it showcased him as well as any song I’ve ever seen him perform on stage–and I’ve sure seen him in plenty of shows over the years, from “Mugs Money” to “Les Miz,” to “Man of La Mancha,” to
“Bright Star,” to name a few off the top of my head.

“Come Back to Me” is an exceptional song. It is wordy, in an ever-surprising way. The singer/actor has a lot to put across. Not a syllable must be missed. And the energy must be maintained as the lyrics are punched out: “Hear my voice, where you are, take a train, steal a car / Hop a freight, grab a star, come back to me… In a crate, in a trunk, on a horse, on a junk / In a road or a van, wrapped in mink or saran / Anyway that you can, came back to me.” Terrific lyrics–and immediately identifiable to any true musical-theatre aficionado as the work of Alan Jay Lerner. Every top writer has his own distinct style, and that song has “Lerner” stamped all over it. (As Bogardus was putting it over, I could “hear” in my head how wonderful he would be, singing Lerner & Loewe’s “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” from “My Fair Lady.” He’d make a tremendous Henry Higgins. Someone ought to cast him in a production of that shows. And no, he’s not too old; Rex Harrison starred in a successful Broadway revival min his 70s.) One minor complaint. The staging of “Com Back to Me” was just bit busier than I think is ideal for that song.. When there is so much going on in a song–in terms of music, lyrics, drama–and you have an actor who can command the stage (as Bogardus clearly can), you don’t need to have the actor physically move quite so much; it dissipates some of the power that can be projected simply standing in place for key passages. And it can be distracting.

Errico, whom I loved in two Irish-Rep productions of “Finian’s Rainbow” (in 2004 and 2016), and in a Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady,” among many other credits, was warm and quirky, and funny and endearing as the gal (“Daisy Gamble”) with ESP whom Bogardus falls for. That voice of hers is immensely appealing.

John Cudia, who’s starred in both “Phantom of the Opera” and “ Les Miserables” on Broadway, effectively played the rake, “Edward Montcrief.” And I wish I had room to discuss every member of the ensemble, because each carefully-selected cast member not only sang well, each seemed a distinct personality. I was happy to spot in the ensemble Will Bellamy, whom I’d enjoyed in “Finian’s Rainbow.” And I look forward to seeing/hearing more of Florrie Bagel–new to me, but with a ripe voice I liked a lot. Gary Adler conducted a five-piece orchestra (orchestration by Josh Clayton): piano, violin, cello, harp, clarinet/sax. A lot of talent in that intimate jewel-box of a theatre. And “On a Clear Day…” is, at heart, an intimate musical. It never needed the huge productions it’s been given on Broadway.

* * *

“The Sting”–which had its world-premiere engagement in the Spring of 2018 at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, superbly showcased the gifts of Harry Connick Jr. His singing, his piano playing, his songwriting, his charisma… all contributed to a show I enjoyed a lot. I’m hoping that, with some tweaking, “The Sting” might find its way to Broadway.

A wealth of talent– both on stage and behind-the-scenes–was involved with this ambitious production, which featured a libretto (based on David S. Ward’s screenplay) by Bob Martin of “The Drowsy Chaperone” renown; and music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis (co-creators of “Urinetown”), with additional songs by Connick. Oh, there are a few things that need some fixing, which we’ll address shortly. But I thought the show was more entertaining than most shows on Broadway right now.

The Sting

This musical was impeccably cast. The direction (by John Rando) and choreography (by Warren Carlyle) were, for the most part, excellent. The basic story is superb. The writers have pulled off that near-impossible trick–transforming a movie that was perfect in its own way into a stage musical that retains much of what we loved about the film, while offering just enough that is new and different and delightful to fascinate us. And everything was served up with great flair.

Connick is bona fide star, and this role gives him his best theatrical showcase to date, by far. He’s magnetic. He commands the stage. He takes over a role played on screen by the great Paul Newman and quickly makes you forget about Newman. (No small feat, that.) He’s playing con-man Henry Gondorff–who in this stage adaptation has shrewdly been turned into a piano-playing con-man. And Connick seems born to play this role. He makes a most beguiling con man. (This role simply suits him far better than the roles he played in the Broadway revivals of “Pajama Game” and “On a Clear Day You Can see Forever.” It’s a perfect fit for his enormously self-assured personality.) Connick’s singing voice has never been better. He plays piano in that fascinating, uniquely-Connick jazz style of his. He even gamely taps dances. He is interesting, whatever he is doing. He’s reason enough to buy a ticket.

But director Rando and company (Tara Rubin Casting, and Paper Mill producers Mark S. Hoebee, Todd Schmidt, and Patrick Parker) put together an exceptionally strong cast. J. Harrison Ghee was endearing in the second lead–and certainly sings well–playing fellow con-man Johnny Hooker (the role played so deftly by Robert Redford in the film). The character of Hooker is now an African-American–which works just fine in the current script. And again, I quickly forgot about Redford; he was not trying to do Redford; he’s his own man. This version of “The Sting” has its own feel from beginning to end, and it works well on its own terms.

I liked very much, too, the performances of Kevyn Morrow (as Luther), Kate Shindle (never better, as Billie), Peter Benson (the Erie Kid), and Tom Hewitt (Doyle Lonnegan). I didn’t find Janet Dacal, alas, too convincing as Loretta.(And I thought she got the score’s two weakest songs to sing.) But generally speaking, this is an unusually strong cast. Luke Hawkins’ dancing was a plus. And I got a kick out of the wise way that New Orleans trombonist Lucien Barbarin–long a featured sideman in Connick’s band–was utilized onstage, to add sly musical commentary. (I noted happily, too, the presence in the orchestra of jazz saxist Jerry Weldon, another longtime key member of Connick’s own band.)

Bob Martin deserves great credit for the book. He has retained nearly all of the wonderful plot twists and turns of the original film. And I scarcely thought that would be possible. (Usually plots get considerably simplified, when films or straight plays are converted into musicals, and get chunks of dialogue are removed and replaced by song and dance.) The storyline is absorbing. (And “The Sting” has been one of my all-time favorite films since I first saw it on the big screen when it originally came out. It is such a well-crafted film, I was very apprehensive that any adaptation would likely be a disappointment.) The score is engaging. Beowulf Boritt’s set designs are fun.

And the choreography by Warren Carlyle was a delight from start to finish. Sometimes, he evoked wonderful oldtime routines (like the stair-dancing that Bill Robinson was famous for, and Seymour Felix’s memorable choreographed cigarette-smoking business from the film “Rose of Washington Square”); he was at once making a nod to the era depicted and giving us something fresh and meaningful in context. And the spirited hoofing fits this story well.

I’m very glad they’ve retained so much of Scott Joplin’s sublime ragtime music. Joplin’s rags had a great deal to do with the success of the original picture. And they play an important part in this show, as well. I actually wish we heard more of Joplin’s music. Ten different Joplin numbers are heard, at least briefly–but sometimes the snippets are too short to be properly savored. We finally get to fully luxuriate in Joplin’s music rather late in the show.

Joplin needs to be credited on the title page of the program; at present, he is credited only in a note underneath the list of the show’s musical numbers. That feels like an after-thought; insufficient. If the production is appropriating the best music Joplin created in his life–music that is essential to this show–Joplin should also be properly credited on the title page. If they can find room on the page to credit the show’s press agent, hair/wig designer, and fight coordinator, they can find room to credit the musical genius that was Joplin.

The overall length of the show feels right. I wonder, though, if–at present–more time than ideal is being devoted to the set-up and less time than ideal is being devoted to the fantastic Big Con. I have a hunch the show could be improved a bit, that way.

I also think the show would work better if we were less certain, as the story progressed, that our heroes were going to succeed. The more doubts we have about their possible success, the more tension can be generated, and the more satisfying the final payoff will be. One thing the film did better than this musical adaptation is doing at present is make us really worry that the heroes were not going to win. And that made the stakes higher. Paul Newman could, at times, project a certain vulnerability; we wondered if he was washed up, over-the-hill, if he could really pull it off. Now, I love Harry Connick Jr. He’s a sensational performer. And he’s a most believable con artist. The problem is, he has “the guy most likely to succeed” written all over him. Once we get to know him a bit, in the current production, we’re not only rooting for him, we’re sure he’s going to win. He’s just got that air that inspires confidence. Anyone with good instincts would bet on him to succeed. If the script could be tweaked a bit to give us moments when we’re not so sure if he can cut it, it would raise tension. And that would be a plus.

But it was great to see Connick on stage in a musical that is, overall, so very right for him. Stars are rare. And this show makes good use of his particular strengths. I hope it can go to Broadway.

* * *

Paper Mill Playhouse concluded its strongest season in years with the East Coast premiere of a new musical, “Half Time.” Here, too, there was much to like.

The cast was tremendous Donna McKechnie, Andre DeShields, Lillias White, Georgia Engel, Lenora Nemetz, and more…. These are seasoned Broadway pros, now in their 60s and 70s–and in many cases getting the best roles they’ve gotten in a long time. Director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell made wise use of their talents. The show (book by Bob Martin & Chad Beguelin, music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Nell Benjamin) is inspired by the true story of senior citizens hired to provide half-time entertainment for a basketball team. The story is funny, touching, filled with heart. And the performers are absolutely first-rate.

Ageless Donna McKechnie, who first became famous in “A Chorus Line” (for which she won the Tony), gets her best role in decades, and makes the most of it. The same is true of Lillias White, whom I’ve loved since she starred on Broadway in “The Life” (for which she won the Tony). And there’s Andre DeShields (of “The Wiz” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’”), and Georgia Engel (“The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Hello, Dolly!,” TV’s “Mary Tyler Moore Show”), and Lenora Nemetz (whom I’ve treasure since she co-starred in “Chicago,” in its original Broadway run). These players–and more–are all valuable assets, and I relished their work. (I only wish Nemetz, who is a sensational singer, could be given more vocal exposure–some solo lines or a solo number; she was under-utilized here. She got to speak comic lines in that irresistible voice of hers but didn’t get to sing much.)

Donna McKechnie in Half-Time

For me, the show had extra resonance because I’ve seen all of these excellent performers on Broadway in past years. (And having McKechnie dance, solo, in front of the mirrors certainly triggered memories for me of the number that originally made her a star in “A Chorus Line,” so many years ago.) But my guest, who had never seen any of these greats on stage before and didn’t know their histories, enjoyed the show every bit as much as I did. Because it’s funny, and spirited, and very human. It made me laugh. And it also had valuable things to say on aging in America.

Oh, there are moments here and there that need tweaking. The book needs a bit of focusing. It sags a bit, late in the first act, and sometimes points are made more didactically than I like. But it was a richly rewarding show. I hope it has more of life.

* * *

The above-named productions all offered ample rewards. I want to mention one show I didn’t like at all, if only to reflect on some of what’s wrong with the theatre today. I attended the opening night of “Sister Act” at Westchester Broadway Theatre–a not-particularly-good production of a not-particularly-good musical comedy. I loved the original 1992 film “Sister Act,” which starred Whoopi Goldberg. But to me, the stage adaptation is not nearly as rewarding.

Some talented people worked on making the stage adaptation: Alen Menken, music; Glenn Slater, lyrics; and Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, book (with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane). But the show feels awfully lightweight. This may be Menken’s least distinguished score. The original film included some memorable pop numbers, such as “My Guy,” “Shout,” and “I Will Follow Him,” wonderfully arranged by Marc Shaiman. (And the soundtrack album was a best-seller.) None of these infectious oldies were retained for the stage musical. And that’s a pity, because their replacements are not nearly so appealing; they feel more like filler.

Director/choreographer Donna Drake did what she could with the ensemble numbers in the stage production at Westchester Broadway. The spirited ensemble singing/dancing was my favorite part of the night. But the script and score are so mediocre there’s only so much that a director/choreographer can do.

The original screenplay (by Paul Rudnick and others) was masterfully constructed, with subtleties and surprising plots turns. Whoopi Goldberg played a Reno lounge singer, “Deloris Van Cartier,” who hides out in a San Francisco convent to escape from a mob boss who’s put a hit on her. She is far from a natural fit with the Sisters of the convent, but eventually develops a bond with them. She uses her showmanship savvy to turn their staid choir into a joyous, rockin’ gospel-type choir that everyone wants to hear. Goldberg–who is always a treat–gave one of the best performances of her career–funny, eccentric, ascerbic, and oddly endearing. She is a unique star, and that film showed her off to great advantage. The terrific supporting players in the film–Mary Wickes, Kathy Najimy, Maggie Smith, and Harvey Keitel–were all individuals, as well, and Rudnick gave them all moments to shine:

The cast of the stage production–Zuri Washington (as Deloris Van Cartier), Mary Jo McConnell (Mother Superior), Lani Corson (Sister Mary Robert) Ken Jennings (Monsignor O’Hara), Philip Michael Baskerville (Curtis Shank), Danny Wilford (Eddie Souther), Corben Williams (TJ), Jayson Elliott (Joey), Mike D’Amico (Pablo), Sandy Rosenberg (Sister Mary Lazarus), Katelyn Lauria (Sister Mary Patrick)–had a hard time competing with the memory of the film. The writing felt awfully simplistic and obvious. The various
characters, in the stage adaptation, have a cardboard feel. (I was very happy to see Broadway pro Ken Jennings in the Westchester cast. I’ve enjoyed him tremendously over the years in such musicals as “Urinetown” and “Sideshow.” And he made the most of his small role, but his talents were largely wasted.)

The setting has been changed, foolishly, from Reno and San Francisco in the film to Philadelphia in the stage version. (There’s greater contrast if a Reno showgirl is hiding out in a San Francisco convent than there is if a not-too-successful Philadelphia club singer is hiding out in a Philadelphia convent. The writers seemed to have made a change for the sake of change; it certainly doesn’t help.) The script is lacking in nuance and tension. In this adaptation, the singer-on-the-lam succeeds so quickly, thoroughly, and effortlessly in transforming the choir into a rollicking success there’s nowhere left to go, dramatically. The show climaxes far too early. And there was no chemistry whatsoever between the star of this production and the actor playing the guy she eventually falls for.

The stage adaptation asked us to share in the happiness of nuns cutting loose, and singing and dancing with gospel-style fervor. And there’s some fun in that. But not enough–for me, anyway–to sustain a full-length musical. The stage “Sister Act” felt like an attempt to cash in on the name and fame of a terrific movie–while discarding the very elements that made the movie a success. And I see too much of that in contemporary theatre–films turned into stage musicals simply because someone thinks fans of the film will buy tickets to a stage version, regardless of the quality of the work.

* * *

Neil Simon, who died recently, was an extraordinary man. I liked his work very much–some scripts much more than others. He was astonishingly prolific; he gave us 32 Broadway plays, 26 screenplays, eight made-for-TV movies. He was fleet, facile, a consummate pro. Even his lesser works have a polish and a sheen that would be the envy of most writers; the level of craftsmanship was very high. And he could always write surefire comedy scenes. His best plays–such as “The Sunshine Boys” (a masterwork from beginning to end), “Lost in Yonkers,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “The Odd Couple,” “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”–did more than just make us laugh, though; they also contained moments of pathos and insight and uncertainty that quieted us, and made us even more appreciative of Simon’s gifts. (And I don’t want to forget his film “Max Dugan Returns”–a personal favorite. Or the musicals for which he provided the books.)

Neil Simon

When I was young, Neil Simon’s name was golden. The opening of a new Simon play on Broadway was an event. I remember when Simon had four hit plays running simultaneously on Broadway. And it didn’t matter who was in those plays; Simon’s name was the draw, at least as much as any actor in the play. No playwright today enjoys anywhere near that kind of audience-drawing power.

Eventually, though, in all fields, tastes change. Simon’s original fans began aging out, dying off. I watched superbly-written Simon scripts get shorter and shorter Broadway runs. One of his later efforts, “45 Seconds from Broadway,” remains among my all-time favorite Simon scripts; I was stunned when it could not survive even two months on Broadway.

And the last Broadway revival of Simon’s heartfelt “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” which I loved–impeccably cast with Laurie Metcalf and Santino Fontana (who won the Drama Desk Award for it), and handsomely mounted–only ran for nine performances. Directed by David Cromer, it was a perfect production–but times had changed. Neil Simon’s name no longer pulled.

The late New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr taught me not to be discouraged by changing times; true talent–even if temporarily dismissed as “old hat”–will survive. He told me that when he was in college, in the late 1930s, he loved the music of George M. Cohan (as I do), but his friends all considered it hopelessly old-fashioned. It took time for the same music to be re-evaluated, and understood as timeless, classic Americana. … I’m sure, in time, there will be renewed appreciation for Simon’s genius. His best works speak to the heart. And that never grows obsolete.

September 3rd 2018

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