Tuesday, September 6, 2017

After fifteen years as a theater critic covering the musicals of Broadway, I moved west a few years ago. This summer I had the chance to return to my old haunts and found the theater district, with its 40 theaters between 41st and 54th Streets in Manhattan, to be as bright and busy as ever. 

There is a special magic when a Broadway style musical is performed in its natural habitat. Each Broadway theater is unique. They all have differences in sight lines, size and shape of the auditorium, height, width and depth of the stage, off-stage space for sets and different accommodations for orchestras. Each show is built to take advantage of those features and to minimize the impact of their limitations. 

Of course, you can see many of the successful Broadway musicals when they tour and stop in the Bay Area. But touring productions must be adjusted to be able to play in many theaters across the country of different sizes and capabilities. Those compromises are why I say there is simply nothing like seeing a Broadway musical on Broadway.

Cramming seven Broadway shows into the six days in Manhattan, I was only disappointed once - and that was for a show still in previews, so perhaps its problems will be solved before its official opening. (In the hope that they will find a way to make the show work I'll refrain from naming it.)

The six satisfying shows, however, should not only be named, their titles should be shouted from the rooftops. Should you be heading to New York anytime soon, here are some musicals you should try to see.

Come From Away - First and foremost is the most humanity-affirming, positive piece of theater I've seen in years. It tells the true stories of the people of Gander, Newfoundland and the thousands of passengers on the 38 airliners diverted to their airport when the skies over the United States were closed to traffic following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Nearly 7,000 passengers were suddenly directed to Gander's huge airport which had been a refueling stop for trans-Atlantic flights before long range jets could make the crossing non-stop. The town of just about 9,000 people responded to the challenge of the emergency with hospitality, charity and compassion. Based on interviews with residents and passengers alike, the show tells the story with great empathy and humor through a host of intriguing details and features a score of boot-scooting music. It leaves the audience feeling that there is something to be proud of about the human race! 

Anastasia - The 1997 animated movie about a girl who may (or may not) be the daughter of the assassinated Tzar of Russia had a fine set of songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty the team that gave us Ragtime. Its story was well told for a film, but it needed a new structure for the stage. Enter Terrence McNally, who scripted Ragtime as well as The Full Monty He added layers to the story and Ahrens and Flaherty added a host of new songs and musical sequences to make this a satisfying, family friendly musical. Director Darko Tresnjak obviously placed great store in grand design, bringing in not only fine costume, set and lighting designers but the absurdly talented Aaron Rhyne to provide video projections that turn the sets into wonder worlds in the finest use of projections I've seen on Broadway since Woman in White. And with Donald Holder's lighting design, this show not only shines, it glows from the stage! 

Bandstand - If your visit to New York is coming up, you might be there in time to catch the spectacularly innovative choreography that earned Andy Blankenbuehler his third Tony Award, his second in as many years having won it last year for Hamilton. The show, a jazz infused story of World War II veterans forming a band when they are discharged, is high energy and the jazzy-jumpy score gives Blankenbuehler's dancers every possible opportunity to swing, twirl, leap and lift over and over again. With Laura Osness and Corey Cott at the head of a fine cast, the performances are delightful even though the script gets a bit too predictable at times and the sets seem to get worse rather than better as the evening progresses. Still, dancing like this offers thrilling moments.

Miss Saigon - It is extremely rare that a revival on Broadway rival's the original production, but the current version of Boublil and Schönberg's Vietnam version of a Madam Butterfly-type story is better balanced, more intelligently nuanced and I think better designed than the blockbuster that played this very same theater for a whole decade (1991 to 2001). None of the three above-the-title leading performers attempt an imitation of their predecessors, which is a relief. Most notably, Jon Jon Briones creates a very different "Engineer" - that conniving con man who dreams of achieving "The American Dream" - than did Jonathan Pryce. This production under director Laurence Connor even finds a way to make the legendary scene of the last helicopter lifting off the American Embassy during the fall of Saigon make dramatic sense, something it didn't do in the original because it was placed in the second act, violating the otherwise chronological structure of the story. Here, the fact that the scene is playing out in a flashback in the mind of the heroine is so much clearer that you don't stop in mid-act to ask "What's going on here?" The show is a limited run so it is only booked through January of 2018 - but we can hope for an extension.

War Paint - There is a term on Broadway for a show created specifically for a star whose name alone can sell tickets. Its a "Star Vehicle." Well, here we have a "Stars Vehicle" - a show that exists to get audiences into seats to watch two major stars, each of whom have two Tony Awards with multiple nominations to their credit: Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. The show itself is a flashy, well-designed and musically as well as lyrically interesting smashing together of the stories of cosmetics moguls Helena Rubinstein (LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Ebersole.) When either star is on stage, the pleasure is grand. But when they share the stage for their joint scenes or songs, the pleasure increases geometrically. Add fine performances by Doug Sills and John Dossett as the men in these ladies lives and you have a fine afternoon or evening. 

School of Rock - Some of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals seem to take themselves way to seriously. No one can accuse this one of that failing however. It is just plain fun - rockin' fun! Based on a 2003 movie about a would-be rocker who takes a teaching job he's not qualified for in a private school and turns the stuck-up, overly motivated preppies into a rockin' band, Lloyd Webber provides a score that a half-dozen insanely talented elementary-school-age kids tear into. The adults get some choke-up moments and let-loose on other rock pieces as well. 

Local critic travels to Broadway

Sausalito critic returns to "The Great White Way" to sample the latest shows.