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.

Review: Sunset Boulevard

A 40-piece orchestra – one of the largest ever to play on Broadway – is the real star of this revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. The score isn’t Webber’s absolute best; it’s very uneven, with passages that sound a little too close to numbers from other (frankly, better) musicals. The best moments, however, are among the best things Webber ever wrote, and hearing those lushly rendered by that enormous ensemble really is a treat.

Glenn Close is reprising the role of faded silent film star Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 Billy Wilder movie), for which Close won a Tony in 1995. Now as then, her performance is a triumph of acting and vocal interpretation. Close’s voice has never been the most powerful musical instrument, but she is canny about musical phrasing. Place this at the disposal of her ferocious acting instincts, and the results are rarely less than totally compelling.

I’m still not convinced that Wilder’s noir poison-pen-love-letter to Hollywood needs to be a musical (Wilder himself said it shouldn’t be one). As pleasurable as the lush arrangements and Close’s grand opera scale emoting are, it still feels like they add up to a bit less than the sum of their parts. Director Lonny Price’s minimalist staging doesn’t make any convincing arguments for it either. When something like “With One Look” or “As If We Never Said Goodbye” comes along, though, it’s hard to resist. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

This tops many outlets “Best of 2016” lists, and is often compared favorably with super-musical Hamilton in terms of innovation and sheer vivacity. What do I think of it? Well, similar to the way I feel about Hamilton, I at least really enjoyed it about as much as everyone else. As for innovation, well, this sort of thing has been done a lot before, especially in the 1970s, though I can’t deny the dexterity of execution here far exceeds anything I’m aware of in this vein.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is composer / writer Dave Malloy’s inspired, stylistically eclectic musical adaptation of a 70-page slice of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel of Russia under attack from Napoleon, War and Peace (some of the spicier and more romantic pages of the novel, it should be said). Director Rachel Chavkin has staged Malloy’s pluckily intellectual creation in a style that in the 1970s was called “environmental,” and today goes by the moniker of “immersive.”

Having worked on immersive productions myself, I’m not taken so much by the idea of Chavkin’s immersive staging – it’s just one of many ways this material could have been staged. What I am taken by is the breathtaking skill and creativity with which Chavkin has applied it.

Here’s one example that stands out for me: our hero Pierre visits a club. For this scene, a 1812 Moscow aristocratic private club is portrayed as S&M night at a 1990s mega-club. It’s a fun idea, but also a really dumb and corny one. Granted that things could get pretty wild at the 1812 club, what with the epic consumption of vodka, but it’s still really apples and oranges.

However, Chavkin, lighting designer Bradley King and choreographer Sam Pinkleton attack the sequence with such precision and energy that the sheer visceral impact is undeniable, even overwhelming, especially in this immersive context. Chavkin and her team bring this combination of smarts and virtuosity to every scene. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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