Review: Prince of Broadway

I am, in some ways, this show’s ideal audience: an ambitious director / choreographer looking for inspiration from Harold Prince, one of the most successful Broadway directors ever. That makes me not only more attentive to details in his dramaturgy, staging and transitions, but also more forgiving of moments where he trades depth for clarity, or sacrifices complexity for more broadly comprehensible insights.

Because, you see, Prince of Broadway, a retrospective revue of Prince’s Broadway work, has come in for some – I think unfair – critical drubbing since its opening. Other critics have seen it as disorganized and shallow, where I would argue it is neither of these things.

It follows a largely chronological ordering of numbers from Prince’s storied career. The only times Prince (who also directed here) fiddles with the timeline is when a song from slightly earlier in his career makes a better transition or section finale. Which I think is very smart when it comes to structuring a show for an audience concerned with being carried away by a theatrical experience, rather than niceties of opening night dates and the like. In other words, the general Broadway audience that Prince has always been so brilliant at speaking to, pushing them as far as he feels he can get away with, and no further – which has been far enough to establish him as a stunningly prolific innovator.

Also, transitions between numbers are governed by what makes more sense in that particular moment. Sometimes you want to know what happened next for Prince, sometimes following a thematic trail directly into another song from another show makes more sense.

Plus, when those songs are delivered by performers this good, almost nothing else matters. Karen Ziemba totally redefines “So What” from Cabaret with a paradoxically luminous rage. Emily Skinner simultaneously and amazingly celebrates and erases Elaine Strich’s legendary take on “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. And Tony Yazbeck tearing “The Right Girl” from Follies to shreds is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Speaking of “The Right Girl,” that is a number where choreographer / co-director Susan Stroman’s work shines particularly bright. From the waist down, Yazbek’s energetic tap dance is pure exuberance; from the neck up his face is wracked with agony. This split between dancing and acting in one dancer’s body is pure Stroman. Recomended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Jerry’s Girls

Can’t get tickets to Hello, Dolly? Well for the rest of this week, you can hear all of the major songs from that show sung beautifully, plus just about every other great song Dolly composer Jerry Herman wrote, in the York Theatre’s “Musicals in Mufti” presentation of Jerry’s Girls, a revue of Herman’s best, designed for a trio of women. “Mufti” refers to “everyday clothes,” and this series from the York presents worthy but neglected musicals of the past in something between a staged reading and a full production, in rehearsal clothes with script in hand, minimal rehearsal and no design elements.

The stellar trio in this production are Stephanie D’Abruzzo (Avenue Q), Christine Pedi (Forbidden Broadway) and Stephanie Umoh (Ragtime 2009 revival). Umoh gets the biggest solo of the evening towards the end – a smashing “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles – but everybody stops the show at some point, D’Abruzzo with the wrenching “Time Heals Everything” from Mack and Mabel, Pedi with the comic gem “Gooch’s Song” from Mame.

Music Director and Pianist Eric Svejcar, a fine musical theatre composer in his own right, is very sensitive to the dramatic ebb and flow of the evening. So, too, is director Pamela Hunt, who has elegantly engineered entrances and exits with music stands on wheels (are those used in every “Mufti” production, I wonder?). All in all a terrific representation of the Herman songbook. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Bandstand

This musical got robbed of the Tony noms it deserves. I think it’s certainly the best musical of the season, and Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor’s score definitely one of my favorites. Director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler did get a nom for his choreography – it would have been truly egregious if he’d been overlooked for that – but I think he deserves one for direction as well. Just a shonda all the way around.

Bandstand takes a hoary showbiz trope – underdog artists make good – and makes it so fresh it hurts. Every plot point turns expectations on their heads, and nothing comes easy for our heroes. Or is that anti-heroes?

The story follows fictional Cleveland native, WW II veteran and swing pianist / songwriter Donny Novitski (Corey Cott) as he tries to make the big time in post-war 1945 through a national radio contest. He and his small combo of fellow veterans struggle with the psychological wounds of war, which we would recognize today as post-traumatic stress. What could have so easily been nostalgic hooey is deeply humane, always engaging and even moving.

With Bandstand, Blankenbuehler joins the ranks of the truly great director-choreographers, a very small group. Every step, hell, even every breath in the show expresses something, nothing is wasted, though the movement tapestry he weaves is very rich indeed. This is far and away his best work, topping even his propulsive choreography for Hamilton.

He also, as I indicated above, demonstrates what an actors’ director he is. He helps performers like Cott and Laura Osnes (who plays the female lead, young Gold Star widow Julia) really show the full extent of their chops. Both of these talented young triple threats tend to get cast as stereotypical ingenues, but here they give riveting performances as full, conflicted human beings – they also should have been nominated, gosh darn it all. Egregious, so egregious! And highly, highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Jackie Hoffman gets entrance applause!! That just tells me that some things are right in the world, even with all the daily head-slapping news. Of course, this is due mostly to her big role in TV’s Feud as Joan Crawford maid Mamacita, but she is just as much fun as the permanently sozzled Mrs. Teevee in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.

This musical is based on the children’s book of the same name, as was the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. While the show uses a couple of beloved songs by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse from the film, the majority of the colorful and exuberant score is by Hairspray scribes Marc Shaiman (composer) and Scott Wittman (lyricist). The story (if somehow you’re not aware) follows chocolate-loving child Charlie Bucket as he longs for a “golden ticket” to tour master chocolatier Willy Wonka’s factory.

Shaiman’s music is charming – full of tasty licks as usual – and you can’t spell Wittman without “wit.” It is most unfortunate that muddy sound design often obscures those witty lyrics. Christian Borle portrays Wonka with his usual élan, with somewhat more humanity than previous incarnations. Director Jack O’Brien has presented a smaller-scale production than Sam Mendes on the West End, and while I’m not sure that was the right decision, it’s still sufficiently splashy and vivid. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: War Paint

Some of Broadway’s most solid craftsmen worked on War Paint, and it shows. Most of the creative team previously worked on Grey Gardens, and while this isn’t up to the caliber of that show, it’s still pretty darn good. War Paint follows the decades-long rivalry of cosmetics pioneers Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone), who between them defined beauty standards for the first half of the 20th Century.

The score by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie evokes all kinds of music from the 1930s through the 1960s, with generous doses of big band-style swing. Doug Wright’s book, together with Korie’s lyrics, uses the fierce competition between these two female titans of industry to examine their differences, but more importantly to shed light on the similar challenges they both faced in the male-dominated business world.

Of course, the main draw is seeing not one but two living legends in the lead roles. The songs for Ebersole and LuPone go beyond intelligently painting the personalities of the two main characters – they are as exquisitely tailored for their talents as are their glamorous Catherine Zuber-designed outfits. This is nowhere more apparent than in their twin 11 O’Clock numbers. When Christine finishes her song “Pink” – as pure Ebersole as anything Frankel and Korie gave her in Grey Gardens – it’s hard to imagine they could top it. And they don’t, exactly – Patti’s “Forever Beautiful” is more of a lateral move, just as astonishing a number, and ideal for LuPone.

It’s very well-crafted, but not perfect: There are moments when the dramatic tension goes a bit slack, until our heroines have a new historical problem to face. It’s an inherent weakness of most historically-based theatre, and therefore one I am quick to forgive. For the most part, War Paint is smart and marvelously stylish entertainment. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: The View UpStairs

On the basis of this show, Max Vernon is definitely a musical theatre songwriting talent to keep an eye on. The score is far and away the strongest part of The View UpStairs; it sounds like a mix of Jonathan Larson, Boy George’s Taboo and Marc Bolan at his glammiest, and that’s a pretty spicy musical gumbo. The show takes us to the UpStairs Lounge, a vibrant early 1970s gay dive bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which was the site of a terrible anti-gay attack – to learn more about it go see the show.

The book is a somewhat different story. Vernon also wrote the book, and as with most musical theatre books by songwriters, it’s the weakest link in the show. It’s not that Vernon lacks talent as a writer; some of his lyrics are very fine indeed. Plus the book gets the job done better than some, and has a few genuinely entertaining moments. Far too often, though, you can feel the story’s gears moving until we get into a song. The story is told through the eyes of a young gay guy from 2017 transported back to 1973, and – a handful of strong insights at the very end of the show aside – the device is more awkward than it is revealing.

Under Scott Ebersold’s canny and vigorous direction, the cast is uniformly fine and strongly committed to the show, which makes any problems much easier to take. The hearts of everybody involved are definitely in the right place. This is Vernon’s first Off-Broadway show, I truly can’t wait to see where he goes next. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Come from Away

First off I want to give director Christopher Ashley a warm welcome back to Broadway, where he hasn’t directed in many years. He directed many of my favorite Broadway shows – from musical hit Xanadu to unjustly maligned brilliant flop comedy The Smell of the Kill. His work on new musical Come from Away is among the most expertly executed and tightly paced I’ve seen from him, and that’s saying something. Welcome back, Mr. Ashley!

Come from Away tells the story of what happened in Gander, Newfoundland in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. With U.S. airspace closed, 38 planes and 6,579 passengers were forced to land in Gander, which had an unusually large airport, a relic of pre-jet air travel. Ashley keeps things moving with grace and ease.

This remarkable story is told with compassion but isn’t mawkishly sentimental; it deals with a national trauma, but comes at it from an oblique angle. Anybody who was in New York that day doesn’t need to be reminded of what it looked like, and thankfully Come from Away doesn’t use those images.

The married team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein co-wrote the book and score. The well-constructed and engaging book is stronger than the Celtic-folk-inflected score, which is pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable, except for “Me and the Sky” which tells the story of Beverley Bass, the first woman to captain on commercial fights (Jenn Colella knocks it out of the ballpark). Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.