Monday, July 25, 2016

ICON: Does It Want To Be An Old Style Operetta or An Edgy Socio-Political Musical?

ICON:  Photo by Shira Friedman Photography

There is nothing wrong with Icon – an old school romantic musical being given a relatively upscale production as part of the annual New York Musical Festival (NYMF)  that could not be fixed with some serious trimming and a commitment to a style that could go in one of two directions: un-ironic operetta or a satiric Cabaret-like take on the rise of fascism in Italy. If my vote counts, I'd opt for the latter.

Prior to this brief run, Icon, with a book by Sebastian Michael and music and lyrics by Jonathan Kaldor, had not seen the light of day since 2008, when it was produced at a London fringe theater, along with a couple of staged readings elsewhere in that city.

The plot is one that has been incorporated into many a hoary operetta and movie: An American socialite is married off to the scion of a titled European family; the arranged marriage does not work out; the socialite falls in love with a commoner.  

That’s OK. There are worse threadbare plot lines on which to set a romantic musical.  It’s what you do with the material that matters.

In this case, the socialite, the newly-anointed Princess Constance (played with great American feistiness and optimism by Charlotte Maltby), is determined to make a go of things, even when her new husband, Crown Prince Cedric (Ben McHugh), evidently gay, shows no interest in her whatsoever. He and his mother the Grand Duchess (Leslie Becker), a true pragmatist who understands what's what, are mostly concerned with appearances. Constance – a combination of Princess Di and Princess Grace, with a little bit of Evita thrown in – fills the bill nicely, so long as she is willing to tow the line, smile, and wave as required.  

Constance is determined to make the most of her position, however, and it isn’t long before she bypasses the snooty protocols and condescension with which she is treated, to become “the people’s princess.” Along the way, she meets and falls in love with Alvaro (Sam Simahk), a waiter/musician, and naively believes that as an egalitarian American she can do what she likes without the least concern for appearances. Will love triumph, or will Constance be subsumed by the rules of society that threaten to engulf her?  

The action takes place mostly in 1928 in a principality nestled in the Italian Alps. But there is also an ill-fitting framing device set in Venezuela (???) in 1969, with the purpose of providing needless exposition. Fortunately for us, in this production we are blessed in these scenes with the presence of Donna McKechnie as a character whose connection with the main story you’ll figure out within ten seconds. She does what she can with the role (alas, no dancing, and only a teensy bit of singing), but, really, here is one of the places where the show needs judicious pruning and reworking. Better to excise the Venezuela scenes and build any necessary exposition into the main story line.

The other place that needs reconsideration is the tone of the show, which cries out for building up the context of fascism (Mussolini was already running things by the year Icon takes place). No doubt in doing so, it would invite comparison with Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. But the music already is a mix of  lyrical romanticism and the kind of work associated with the more famous pair (including one specific song that sounds quite a bit like a number from Cabaret), as well as that of Kurt Weill or Marc (The Cradle Will Rock) Blitzstein. So I say, go with it and see where it might lead.   

Icon has been given more than a fair shake by the talented Equity cast (including the charmingly elegant Tony Sheldon as Princess Constance’s secretary/protector), under the direction of Paul Stancato, who also contributes the choreography. Liene Dobraja’s costumes, Kevan Loney’s projection design, and the seven-member orchestra conducted by Jesse Warkentin help to raise the caliber of the production beyond that of the typically stripped-down versions that appear in the festival.  But if Icon is to have a life beyond the handful of performances at NYMF, it does need to revisit its book and reconsider its focus.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Thursday, July 21, 2016

BROADWAY HERE WE COME: Off Broadway Shows Seek Success on the Great White Way

The journey from Off Broadway to Broadway may be a short hop by subway, but it is still a long and perilous ride for any show that makes the move. There is simply no way of predicting what will grab the attention of a potential Broadway audience member – not only one who is willing to shell out astronomical sums for an anomaly like Hamilton, but, more typically, who is amenable to forking over, say, $145 for a ticket to a non-musical like The Humans, double the top price when it appeared off Broadway.  

The lure for producers to transfer a play or musical from Off Broadway to Broadway is easy to understand.  When you’ve got a show that has garnered rave reviews and sold-out status during its initial Off Broadway run, the built-in publicity and buzz provide a great boost. And the brass ring is obtainable. Think Fun Home, Next to Normal, Avenue Q

But Off Broadway success isn’t everything. Theatergoers can be fickle, especially when there is almost always something new (or nostalgically in revival) just around the corner. Remember when Cats was “now and forever?” Well, it’s back on Broadway, in previews even as we speak. And coming in the spring, Bette Midler starring in a revival of Hello, Dolly!  The crystal ball is fuzzy when it comes to predicting how  Cats will fare. It has started out with excellent sales in its initial week of previews, but whether it can sustain the momentum remains to be seen.  But Hello, Dolly?  Starring Bette Midler?  No cloudiness in the crystal ball here. It is as close to a foolproof crowd-and-money draw as you are likely to see in the coming season. 

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But we were talking about the transfer of Off Broadway shows hoping to find popularity among the Broadway crowd.  Let’s take a look at what’s happening there, starting with two transferred shows that found great success in the last season.

When Hamilton ran at the Public Theater, it was a huge hit pretty much from the get-go. The question was never “if,” but “when” it would make the move to Broadway. There was a tiny bit of a dispute regarding the timing; the producers wanted to make the transfer just before the deadline for the 2015 Tonys, but the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, insisted on holding off in order to make some adjustments to ready the show to relocate to Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre. 

In the end, there was a short hiatus between its Off Broadway spring closing and its Broadway opening last August, resulting in a minor bit of anxiety:  Would the buildup of anticipation hold up through the break?  Would the Tony voters remember a show that opened so early in the season?  Hmm…  Guess that one worked out.   

The Humans, while not in the same runaway money-inhaling category as Hamilton, has proven itself to be a winner since its transfer from the Roundabout’s Off Broadway Laura Pels Theater. 

In a sense, this has been more of an anomaly than Hamilton, since straight plays – unless they boast Hollywood superstar names on the marquee – rarely do as well as musicals. But even without superstars, The Humans, written by playwright Stephen Karam, garnered an impressive and well-deserved four Tonys: best play, best leading actor (Reed Birney), best leading actress (Jayne Houdyshell), and scenic design; it also had additional nominations for its director, Joe Montello, and for its lighting design. 

Because its current Broadway home, the Helen Hayes Theatre, is about to be shut down for a long-planned refurbishing, the producers are banking on the show’s popularity to keep it afloat while transferring it to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, dark since American Psycho closed early last month. 

One block apart and a break of two weeks until it reopens on August 9.  We shall see whether The Humans can shore up its momentum just as the new season gets ready to kick off.

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Looking to the new season, one potential winner with Off Broadway roots is Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, a tuneful pop opera written by Dave Malloy and based on a section from Leo Tolstoy’s epic tome War and Peace

The show made the rounds of three separate Off Broadway venues in New York between the fall of 2012 and the spring of 2014. Even then, it was given a fairly elaborate production, staged among café tables where the audience members sat and were treated to vodka and plates of Russian noshes. The experience within a cleverly-designed tent-like setting helped make the show a popular draw.

More recently, the original creative team staged it again, this time at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This well-received production is the one that is transferring to Broadway.  It will star the popular singer Josh Groban as Pierre, and Denée Benton – who most recently appeared in the national tour of The Book of Mormon – as Natasha. Both are making their Broadway debuts. The question to be answered:  To what extent will director Rachel Chavkin be able to recreate the intimate and immersive experience she brought to the original production?  And if she builds it, will they come?  

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At least three other shows are slated to make the move from Off Broadway to Broadway in the coming months.  

Mary Louise Parker
Photo By Joan Marcus

Heisenberg, written by Simon Stephens (who gave us the first-rate novel-to-stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) was a sold-out hit when it appeared at the Manhattan Theater Club’s studio theater last year. But with 150 seats, selling out was not quite the challenge it will be when the play opens at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in October. 

This is an 80-minute, two-character play about a chance meeting that becomes a sparring relationship between two strangers, a quirky younger woman and an older man. Mary-Louise Parker will be re-creating her role, opposite actor Kenneth Welsh, and Mark Brokaw will once again direct. It will be interesting to see how the show fares on Broadway. It may help that since the Friedman is MTC’s Broadway house, there is a ready-made subscription audience.  But can they fill 900+ seats?

Barbara Barrie and Gideon Glick
Photo by Joan Marcus

Another play making the transition from Off Broadway is Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other, a “dramedy” about a twenty-something gay man who feels deserted and rudderless as his women friends all marry and break away, forcing him to confront his own unpredictable future. This sweetly comic play was well-received during its run at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater, under Trip Cullman’s deft direction. 

Cullman will direct the Broadway run at an as yet unnamed Shubert theater, and he has said he’d like to take the entire cast with him (among them an excellent Gideon Glick in the title role, and Barbara Barrie as his wise and supportive grandmother), but the play isn’t opening until the spring … so we’ll have to wait and see.  

Finally, we await the Broadway transfer of Dear Evan Hansen, a musical about an anxious and depressed high school student who stumbles his way into popularity through a series of high-stakes lies. The show picked up the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical, plus another for its book by Steven Levenson. It also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics for the composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (A Christmas Story and Dogfight).  

Ben Platt gave a wonderfully twitchy performance in the title role, under Michael Greif’s direction. They will both be on board when the show opens at the Belasco Theatre in December.  

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Depending on how it is staged and on the drawing power of Josh Groban, its high-profile star, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 may be the one to make it to the top. It is probably pretty expensive to mount (among other things, there will be some reconfiguration of the seating). But it has the benefit of several successful productions in different venues, and it will be interesting to see how is being reshaped for Broadway. 

Certainly it helps that Groban, though a  Broadway newcomer, knows how to play to a large audience, and Rachel Chavkin is showing herself to be a director to be reckoned with, as she demonstrated in her imaginative staging of last season's The Royale at the Mitzi Newhouse and this year's terrific Hadestown at the New York Theatre Workshop. 

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Speaking of Hadestown,  it is closing at the end of this month, but I would love to see it land somewhere for an extended run, either at another Off Broadway venue or uptown (the flexible Circle in the Square comes to mind). The show is a staged production of singer/composer Anaïs Mitchell’s 2010 concept album of the same name. Call it a folk opera, as it is being promoted, or a sung-through musical, it is a thrilling evening of theater, a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice performed by an impeccable cast, with songs that embrace country, gospel, blues, and New Orleans jazz. 

The Total Bent
Photo by Joan Marcus

Also closing soon is another show that deserves a longer life  The Total Bent, written by Stew and his collaborator Heidi Rodewald. The book kind of gets lost in the shuffle, but this tale of a rift between a gospel-singing father and his rhythm and blues-singing son is smart, sharp, and often quite funny. It boasts a terrific score and stellar performances that capture the sweep of music and black life in America from the early days of the Civil Rights Movement well into the era of rock and funk. 

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"Success" in Broadway terms means different things to different people. Profits, prestige, and garnering awards are important to the cast, creative team and the producers, but as audience members, we are looking for entertainment and an emotionally or intellectually rewarding experience, along with a consistently high level of talent, skill, and professionalism. Each of the shows discussed here will deliver the goods, but theatergoing is both a collective and individual experience.  Once the lights go down, it's anyone's game. Whenever I take my seat among the rest of the audience, it is with the same excited anticipation I felt more than half a century ago when I first fell in love with live theater. Curtain up, light the lights, and here we go!!!

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.