Review: SpongeBob SquarePants

I’m aware of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon on which this musical is based, but not exactly familiar with it. I’ve gotten a good giggle or two watching a few minutes of this gleefully surreal show, but before seeing this adaptation, I wouldn’t have been able to name a single character outside of the titular lead. So there are a fair number of inside jokes here that went right over my head. That said, I found this relentlessly silly and colorful show irresistibly enjoyable.

In SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, the whole of Bikini Bottom, our hero’s beloved home town, is endangered by a nearby volcano on the verge of erupting. SpongeBob and his intrepid friends fight daunting odds to save the day.

I knew this would be something special when I found out that Tina Landau was directing. Landau is one of a small number of directors who have successfully applied an avant-garde background to commercial theatre work. Puppets, projections and stage tricks are used liberally but judiciously, and so are breathtakingly simple staging strategies that communicate complex moments. The end result is a fun-house ride of a show that celebrates optimism and imagination.

The entire cast works tirelessly, none more so than SpongeBob himself, Ethan Slater. Slater is compact, flexible and well-built, so much so that a friend of mine has taken to calling him SpongeBob HotPants. He also has boundless energy and cheer, which suits the role to a T. Also magnificent is Gavin Lee as SpongeBob’s sourpuss coworker Squidward, especially when tapping the living daylights out of Christopher Gatelli’s kinetic choreography for “I’m Not A Loser.” Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes

I’ve lived in New York for a long time and I’ve never seen the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes. I mean, sure, I’ve seen the Rockettes in other settings – I even saw the summertime New York Spectacular they did at Radio City a while back. But never the Christmas Spectacular itself. This year I decided to remedy that situation.

It is everything I had hoped. It is first and foremost spectacular, driven by the amazing unison dancing of the Rockettes themselves, but hugely abetted by Radio City’s stunning hydraulics system and dazzling projections by Obscura Digital and batwin + robin. It is also unapologetically schmaltzy and sentimental, but all that sweetness is cut by a strain of jazziness – both in the music and dancing – that runs throughout. The sheer virtuosity of all involved also elevates it above mere treacle.

Of course the Rockettes are the star of the show. The opening number “Santa’s Reindeer” totally whets the appetite for what follows. Highlights include a “Here Comes Santa Claus” number where Santas keep multiplying – I’m thinking the entire adult company suited up for this one – and a finale satisfyingly full of high kicks. Some of the best numbers, though, are some of the oldest ones: “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” which has been a part of the show largely unchanged since 1933, a “Living Nativity” which has evolved considerably from that time to this, and a somewhat newer but still classic delight called “Rag Dolls” which at one point features a teddy bear in a pink tutu.

Director/choreographer Julie Branam has pulled together a daunting number of elements and collaborators to put together an extravaganza that can hold its head up in the tradition of Rockettes’ legendary holiday-season shows. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Band’s Visit

There is much being said about how innovative The Band’s Visit is, but I think it draws its strength from the ways in which it is very traditional. This musical marries very traditional musical theatre structure, courtesy of Itamar Moses’s sturdy book, and traditional Egyptian classical music, whose roots go back well over a thousand years. To be totally accurate, maybe only half of David Yazbek’s marvelous score is Egyptian classical, with the other half is a gleefully eclectic mix, including the cabaret-ready cool jazz “Haled’s Song About Love.”

The Band’s Visit follows an Egyptian police band that specializes in Egyptian classical, as they get lost on their way to a gig at an Arabic Cultural Center in Israel. With no bus until morning and no hotel in the small town where they are stranded, locals take the musicians in for the night.

Their interactions open up emotional issues for all involved, especially with the tentative yet still intense flirtation between band leader Tewfiq (Tony Shaloub) and local café owner Dina (Katrina Lenk). Dina, you see, is a big fan of Egyptian culture, especially classical chanteuse Umm Kulthum and movie star Omar Sharif, so Tewfiq is a natural focus of fascination for her. Similarly the band’s resident Casanova, the Chet Baker-worshiping Haled (Ari’el Stachel), helps awkward teen Papi (Etai Benson) approach a girl he likes (in between putting the moves on the limited population of single women in the town).

Though the ensemble work is terrific, with Lenk and Shaloub the definite stand outs, the real star here is David Yazbek’s masterful score. He shows that he can create beautiful, affecting music in any idiom he sets his mind to, while never losing sight of the need for theatrical effectiveness. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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.

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.