Review: Rocky

ROCKY photo by Matthew Murphy 2_08_14-648

This is easily the most spectacular musical to come out of Broadway this season. Director Alex Timbers has long been one of the American theatre’s most inventive stagers, and here he has truly outdone himself, with a stunning, climactic ending that will be hard for him to top going forward.

Based on the 1976 film that made Sylvester Stallone a star, Rocky follows struggling small time Philly boxer Rocky Balboa (Andy Karl), who gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot to prove himself in the ring fighting heavyweight champ Apollo Creed.

Christopher Barreco’s ever evolving set is very evocative of ’70s Philly, as well as being increasingly eye-filling – just astounding. He is definitely aided and abetted by video designers Don Scully and Pablo N. Molina, whose large-scale projections of Rocky training add to the epic feel of the show. One small video problem – all the televised fight sequences have a very 21st Century ESPN look to them, rather than the lo-fi look of ’70s sports broadcasting. It’s not hi-res that I object to, that’s fine, it’s a visual aesthetic that is completely foreign to 1976. A small quibble, but annoying.

Thankfully, all this spectacle actually has a beating heart behind it. Andy Karl leans into Rocky’s sensitive side, soft-peddling the macho, “Italian Stallion” side of his personality – I think it’s a great choice. Margo Seibert is great as Balboa’s love interest, the painfully shy Adrian – her voice is truly lush and does great things for songs like “Raining”. Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) have provided a lovely score, running over with melody and feeling. It’s the kind of score that opens up upon repeated listening – which isn’t quite the right choice for a show as punchy as this. Very nice, but not quite right.

Rocky the Musical has never a dull moment, and truly is a thrill-ride. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Kung Fu

Kung Fu The Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Stage

Full disclosure, I am a big fan of Bruce Lee – I’m drawn to his charisma, his incredible physical precision, and, oh yeah, that smokin’ hot bod. So it’s not surprising that David Henry Hwang’s bioplay about Lee, Kung Fu, doesn’t really tell me anything about Bruce I didn’t already know. As Hwang usually does, however, he’s managed to find compelling ways to meditate on the sociological and artistic dimensions of Lee’s story.

Originally begun as the book of a projected Bruce Lee musical that never materialized, Kung Fu tells much the same story as the Lee biopic Dragon. More emphasis is placed on Bruce’s relationship with his father Hoi-Chuen, played with rock-solid gravitas by the great Francis Jue. Hoi-Chuen was an actor in Jyut kek, also known as Cantonese opera. Hwang used Cantonese opera’s northern cousin Jīngjù, or Peking opera, in his revision of Flower Drum Song. As he did there, he has incorporated several dance numbers in the traditional Chinese form, to great visual and emotional effect.

In general, Hwang has replaced what would have been musical numbers with fight or Jyut kek numbers, with original instrumental music by Du Yun. Kung Fu is, above all other things, a choreographic spectacle – Emmanuel Brown’s fights, Sonya Tayeh’s dances and Jamie Guan’s Jyut kek are all eye-filling and thoroughly exciting.

Cole Horibe, best known for his appearance in TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance”, dazzles with the precision and power of his moves, as anybody who portrays Lee should. He also has Lee’s accent down cold – not some random Chinese accent, but Bruce Lee’s exact accent. And he has the demeanor down too: a confident spiritual seeker, but always with a steely, cocky, even thuggish core.

This isn’t the most definitive telling of Lee’s life story, nor is it Hwang’s most insightful work. It is a mildly thoughtful, visually exciting object lesson on overcoming adversity with grace and determination. On that level, I can recommend it.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Bronx Bombers

Bronx Bombers Circle in the Square Theatre

Playwright Eric Simonson has a real gift for bringing out the human side of sports stories. With Bronx Bombers he completes what could be thought of as a Major American Sports Trilogy: he covered football with the 2010 Lombardi, basketball with the 2012 Magic/Bird and now finally baseball – in the persons of the New York Yankees – gets its inning with Bombers.

Having seen those other plays, I knew that I wasn’t in for an evening of stats and nonstop machismo. Stats are referred to but never laid out, and macho shit talk is played mostly for laughs – although any play that features Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson as characters would have to have some of that nonsense bullshit, or it just wouldn’t be accurate.

Bombers is much more epic and ambitious than the other two. Completely understandable: baseball has been America’s sport of choice much, much longer than the other two, going back to the 19th Century at least, maybe back to the 18th.

And a play about the Yankees – well, no matter what team you prefer, there’s no denying that the Yankees has the longest list of big personalities of perhaps any sports team, in perpetuity throughout the universe. Most of them make at least a cameo appearance here, which makes for moments that are easily the most moving and insightful in the trilogy. It does not make for consistently gripping storytelling, though; outside of those moments, Bronx Bombers can wander a bit.

This diffuse play comes into it’s clearest focus when dealing with Yogi Berra. Peter Scolari plays Berra, and he all but disappears into his portrayal of the beloved Yankees coach, nailing Berra’s skittish New Yawker demeanor, as well as his sly, surprising wit. A magnificent, award-worthy piece of acting.

While definitely a heartfelt and intelligent tribute to a team clearly near and dear to Simonson’s heart, this is perhaps the weakest of the three plays. Still, I can recommend it, on the basis of a handful of great moments and Scolari’s masterful performance. Undoubtedly, if you love the Yankees, you will love this.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Golden Boy

goldenboy_shalhoubnumrichburstein

 

In Golden Boy, I can see more clearly than ever the influence of playwright Clifford Odets on my favorite 20th Century American playwright, Tennessee Williams. In this tragic drama Odets hits on a theme that would be central to Williams work: the struggle of the fragile, precious artistic spirit to survive in brutal circumstances.

In Golden Boy that struggle takes place in the body and soul of Joe Bonaparte (played with great “body and soul” by Seth Numrich), a young, gifted violinist torn between pursuing his beloved music or earning big money as a prize fighter. Odets’s 1937 drama is surprisingly fresh – sure, there’s the odd line here or there that seems a little corny, and the last two scenes wrap up an otherwise compelling plot in a contrived and melodramatic way (though the actual dialogue is moving). But in general, Odets works over some really big ideas with great intelligence and sensitivity.

Director Bartlett Sher helps this immensely by evolving a sharp contrast between the humble, thoughtful demeanor of Joe’s father (played by Tony Shalhoub with the deepest humanity I’ve seen him display in any medium), and the brash, cruel, even hateful attitude displayed by one and all in the boxing world. Odets only portrays two people in the boxing business as interested in Joe for himself, his trainer Tokio (Danny Burstein) and his manager’s mistress Lorna (Yvonne Strahovski), and Burstein and Stahovski indeed give the most impressive performances of the evening after Numrich and Shalhoub.

Sher seems to be on a mission to revive the reputation of Odets, adding this to his similarly affectionate revival of the playwright’s Awake and Sing a few seasons back. Seeing as Odets is probably the biggest theatrical influence on Williams outside of Eugene O’Neill, I’m all for it!

For tickets, click here.

Review: Bring It On!

What happens when you combine a cheesy, featherweight film franchise with a creative team packed with Broadway’s freshest talents? You get a cheesy, featherweight musical that also happens to be smart, tuneful and relentlessly entertaining. A great start to the new musical season!

Bring It On: The Musical tells the story of Campbell, the popular cheer captain of white bread Truman High, who is redistricted to multi-culti Jackson High, which doesn’t even have a cheer-leading squad, and she has to figure how to suddenly deal with being an outsider.

Those of you familiar with the film may note that this is clearly not an exact adaptation. I’m told it’s closer to one of the direct DVD sequels, Bring It On: All or Nothing, though it has even more in common, plot-wise, with a handful of black and white gay camp classics. Hell, there’s even a fierce teenage drag queen! Jeff Whitty, who wrote the book to Avenue Q, has crafted an appropriately propulsive original story that sneaks in more thoughtfulness than you would expect.

As far as the score goes, there’s plenty of composer Tom Kitt pop/rock tunefulness and lyricist Amanda Green’s gentle wit. Co-composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda goes even harder and deeper into hip-hop than he did with In the Heights. But this is really director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler’s vehicle, as he sends competing cheerleading teams flying across the stage and high into the air.

David Korins’s sparse set does what it needs to with no ostentation, ably aided by Jeff Sugg’s consistently clever video design. I predict this lightweight treat will be a huge success, and one that’s richly deserved!

For tickets, click here.

Review: Magic/Bird

Playwright Eric Simonson has a real gift for bringing out the human side of sports stories. His 2010 play Lombardi let us in on legendary Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi’s deep, sincere affection for both the game and his players. Now, his Magic/Bird follows one of the fiercest rivalries in sports history, sprawling over decades as Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, two of the all-time great basketball players, battle for championships, MVP awards, and dominance of their sport.

This was less of a surprise to me than Lombardi. Having seen that other play, I knew that I wasn’t in for an evening of stats and machismo. Stats are referred to but never laid out, and macho shit talk is played almost entirely for laughs.

Magic/Bird is both more epic and human-scale than Lombardi. Where the earlier play asked interesting questions about all kinds of ethical issues, this one straightforwardly tells the engaging story of an intense rivalry developing into an equally intense friendship. On the other hand, Lombardi focused on a single incident, whereas Magic/Bird follows our heroes through the golden days of their careers, from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. Johnson was also one of the first prominent American heterosexuals to admit to contracting HIV, and that is dealt with quite sensitively.

Kevin Daniels is Magic and Tug Coker is Bird, and both are rock-solid. The real acting treat of the show, though, are stage veterans Deirdre O’Connell and Peter Scolari tearing up the stage in series of mostly comic smaller roles. Director Thomas Kail is once again Simonson’s creative partner, and his inventive staging makes creative, restrained use of projections and turntables – all purposeful, never just spectacle for spectacle’s sake. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy Magic/Bird, just a fan of good storytelling and solid entertainment.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Damn Yankees

Paper Mill Playhouse’s Damn Yankees is a quality revival of this energetic and charming old-fashioned musical. Yankeesfollows passionate baseball fan Joe Boyd (Joseph Kolinski), who sells his soul to a devil named Applegate (Howard McGillan) in order to help his home team, the Washington Senators, beat out the Yankees for the pennant.

Middle-aged Joe Boyd is transformed into young Joe Hardy (the appropriately athletic newcomer Christopher Charles Wood), who can knock the ball out of the park every time. When Joe starts missing his old life (and wife), Applegate brings in sexy Lola (Chryssie Whitehead), who tries to seduce Joe, singing the show’s biggest hit “Whatever Lola Wants”.

The original 1955 production was only the second time Bob Fosse had choreographed for the Broadway stage. Choreographer Denis Jones provides the merest whiff of Fosse’s style, which turns out to be a very smart move; the mambo-inflected “Who’s Got the Pain?”, for example, makes much more sense in this lightweight show without that oddly compelling Fosse menace. Whitehead delivers Jones’s choreography with playful aplomb both in “Pain” and above all in “Whatever Lola Wants”. Susan Mosher is a scream in the small but delightful comic role of Senators fan Sister. And who doesn’t love hunky chorus boys dressed as baseball players?

Christopher Charles Wood, however, is the real reason to see this production; he’s handsome, well-built, sexy and has acting and singing ability that more than matches his looks. Director Mark S. Hoebee has clearly done the work with Wood to make sure that his Hardy and Kolinski’s Boyd have the same personality. All in all, this Damn Yankees is solidly entertaining, with plenty of heart.

For tickets, click here.