Arts In LA

Visiting Broadway

A Musical Week in New York

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz

Harry Hadden-Paton and Laura Benanti in My Fair Lady
Photo by Joan Marcus

Theater is a living organism. It has always been able to evolve because each production is fresh. Movie subtexts may be more pronounced in later years, but every line and every shot of Casablanca is exactly the same in 2019 and it had been in 1943. Therefore, it is inevitable in the climate of #metoo that some revivals have filtered the Golden Age plots through more-woke, less abuse-permissive lenses. Even the new musicals are either focusing or skewing their views to reflect current times.

The Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont’s sumptuous staging of My Fair Lady reminds audiences throughout the production that men like Henry Higgins aren’t cuddly grizzly bears, but uncomfortably immature and narcissistic man-children unworthy of resilient women like Eliza Doolittle. Laura Benanti is exquisite as the guttersnipe who learns language delicacies and raises her class stature. The role often calls for a young adult of 19 or 20, but Benanti wisely choses to play Eliza closer to her own age. Her Eliza has been on the streets selling flowers for 30 or so years. She’s worn down and seasoned. In early scenes of other productions of My Fair Lady, when confronted by Higgins, Eliza’s high-pitched screams and cackles reflect a child-like temperament. Benanti never reaches a panicked squeal, instead using her voice to show that even before she had learned the tools to become a lady in society’s view, Benanti’s Eliza always had self-esteem and a resilience in the face of Higgin’s cruel comments. Witness how in the finale of Act One when they go to the ball, Benanti refuses to move until her suitor takes her hand. She always has the upper hand. During Ascot, when introduced, Benanti’s Eliza hilariously mimics the exact modulation of each person’s “How do you do?” as if she’s a mynah bird.
   Harry Hadden-Paton exacerbates Higgins’s priggishness. He allows the character’s ugliness to ooze, so the audience never excuses his behavior. Danny Burstein is hilarious as Alfred P. Doolittle. His songs “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” are high points.
   Director Bartlett Sher creates a restrained but buoyant production. The full orchestra, under conductor Ted Sperling, sounds vibrant. Michael Yeargan’s Rube Goldberg set rotates around, giving audiences a 360-degree view of the Higgins residence and allows Sher to move the action from room to room, with the actors singing without a pause.

It’s doubtful anyone has ever seen anything like the Circle in The Square Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!. A transfer from the 2018 production at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, Daniel Fish’s reinterpretation is a visceral mania. It’s almost like a musical sequel to Marat/Sade, where dangerous lunatics in an asylum perform the Golden Age classic musical. The actors react to their characters like dogs in heat. Even Jud Fry and Curley whisper “Poor Jud Is Dead” in the dark like it’s a sexual experience. The most innocuous of Hammerstein’s dialogue sounds dirty. The provocative ending sheds any question of Curley’s culpability, and the townspeople’s dialogue over the final scene’s trial is all recited deadpan as if the director has judged everyone damned for eternity for their crimes.
   The cast is volcanic. Damon Daunno and Rebecca Naomi Jones almost claw each other’s clothes off as Curley and Laurie. Patrick Vaill treats his Jud as a misunderstood loner bullied by the town. Mary Testa is funny and haunting as the town elder, Aunt Eller.
   A star is born by skidding across the stage for most of the evening. Ali Stroker, a Tony nominee already for her jubilant performance as Ado Annie, and a favorite to win, is transfixing as the sexually blossoming Annie. Stroker uses her wheelchair as an extension of her body. Her do-si-do includes popping wheelies and tapping the floor with her big wheels.
   Fish sets the play in a brightly lit barn dance. The houselights are on full blast, so that the few times lighting designer Scott Zielinski shuts off the lights or uses a color scheme, it’s shocking. Orchestrator Daniel Kluger forgoes the traditional orchestra for a small bluegrass band that sits on the stage, plucking out perverse versions of the Broadway standards.

Though the Roundabout production of Kiss Me, Kate features the most changes to reflect the modern period, it feels the least revolutionary. Director Scott Ellis tames his Shakespeare and his Cole Porter. Though both the volatile ex-spouses Fred (Will Chase) and Lilli (Kelly O’Hara) continue to kick each other in the rear ends as they get more hostile during their musical production of Taming of the Shrew, Ellis removes the uncomfortable visual of Fred spanking his wife in front of the cast and audience. The Act Two song “I Am Ashamed That Woman Are So Simple” has been tweaked so Kate/Lilli now sings “I Am Ashamed That People Are So Simple.” Those changes make the sexism less pronounced, but Ellis does not find visual ways to make a revival of Kate a vital need. The show still features one of Porter’s best scores with both modern (for 1948) jazz tunes like “Too Darn Hot” and “Always True to You in My Fashion” and Shakespearean tunes that borrow verses or styles from the bard like “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” and “Where Is the Life That Late I Led” and even some Jazz tunes with Shakespearean-speak like “Tom, Dick or Harry.” However, the book by Sam and Bella Spewack creaks even with the alterations, making the show seem more like an antique.
   O’Hara (nominated for this role) lends her comic timing and glorious voice to the spitfire Lilli and her alter-ego Kate. Chase has fun with the caddish Fred. Corbin Bleu shows off his hoofing expertise in several numbers, and, in her Broadway debut, Stephanie Styles is delightful as the impish Lois Lane.

Two new musicals come from beloved movie scripts. Tootsie, with music and lyrics by last year’s Tony winner David Yazbek and a book by Robert Horn, translates the smash hit Dustin Hoffman comedy of 1982 where Michael Dorsey, a discredited actor, disguises himself as a woman he names Dorothy Michaels to get an acting gig on a soap opera. Complications ensue when the actor falls in love with his co-star, who believes him to be a woman.
   The songs by Yazbek are peppy but unmemorable. They sound like ’80s tunes, and yet the plot is clearly set in modern times. The book contains many hilarious jokes, but these jokes seem more like punchlines than organic humor from the characters, which doesn’t give audiences an interest in those characters. The plot seems to be constantly trying to catch up to the movie script, and one of the movie’s best characters, the actor’s former girlfriend Sandy, disappears from major blocks of the musical only to return and be rammed back in the plot at the last minute.
   Most troubling, though the book recognizes and attempts to empower the #metoo movement, Michael never seems to evolve and seems smarmy even at the end. Moving the action from the soap opera world (as it was in the movie) to the Broadway world (as it is in the musical) could work, but while Dorothy in the movie has been on the soap opera for several months and has earned a large following, it seems incongruous that a newcomer would gain much press and fans while a show is in rehearsals.
   Lastly, when a performer causes a commotion during a soap opera, even if it’s live, the soap opera will generate even more publicity since soap operas thrive on drama. If a performer causes the same commotion on opening night of a multi-million-dollar musical, he puts high finances and the careers of several lead and chorus members in jeopardy. The climax in the movie is funny, but in the musical, Michael’s selfish act comes off self-serving and ugly.
   Each member of the cast is stellar, particularly Santino Fontana as Michael, who manages to realistically sing like a woman in many songs. A natural, Fontana smooths some of the edges that are embedded in the book. Though the character is undernourished, Sarah Stiles is winning as the neurotic ex-girlfriend Sandy. Lilli Cooper, as Michael’s love interest, grounds the play with a confident portrayal of a woman stuck in what’s still a man’s world.

Another adaptation of a hit movie, Beetlejuice features a delightful score and book and hysterical performances, making this musical the find of the season. Like the Tim Burton film, two squares from a small town die and are trapped in their house while an overbearing family moves in and destroys their abode with their tacky architecture and art. Forced into war, the two recently deceased call on an evil spirit, Beetlejuice, to rid their house of these pesky humans. Beetlejuice is a Borscht Belt villain, causing destruction with riotous results. Fresh from imitating Jack Black in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock, Alex Brightman is naughty in all the right ways in the role Michael Keaton made famous. As the goth-child Lydia, Sophia Anne Caruso has an outstanding voice and manages to capture the child’s vulnerability and zest for death. Kerry Butler and Rob McClure are funny as the nerdy ghosts who couldn’t scare themselves, and Leslie Kritzer steals the show as the vulgarian who has turned this home into a hellscape with her tacky taste.
   Eddie Perfect’s tunes are satirical and boisterous. Scott Brown and Anthony King’s book is witty and uses the original movie script as a jumping off point as opposed to a crutch, which makes this revision feel fresher than Tootsie. Even the sci-fi comedy reflects the gender battles as young Lydia finds herself sandbagged into a lifeless marriage. Director Alex Timbers turns the Winter Garden into a haunted house with actors rising in the air, garish greens and black color schemes creating a grotesque atmosphere, and more animated dead bodies than in an episode of The Walking Dead.

New York theater always offers a variety of options, from classic revivals, to toe-tapping musicals, to hard-hitting dramas, to uproarious comedies. Any Angeleno heading back east can be provoked by a landmark production of Oklahoma!, comforted by a conventional revival of Kiss Me, Kate, confronted with toxic masculinity at the sumptuous retelling of My Fair Lady, or revisited by adaptations of past favorite movies like Tootsie or Beetlejuice. The choices are yours.
May 21, 2019
Website Builder