The largest Broadway houses have fewer than 2,000 seats; Radio City Music Hall has almost 6,000. So you might expect Radio City’s New York Spring Spectacular, a sticky amalgam of musical theater, corporate masturbation, and high-fructose corn syrup, to be about three times as bad as, say, Mamma Mia! But that would be to underestimate the awesome tackiness of Spring Spectacular, a show assembled largely to extend the Christmas Spectacular brand into a new seasonal niche. (Cue the hip-hop Easter bunny.) Broadway values, such as they are, are mere starting points in a venue that, spreading over 12 acres, resists subtle gestures; indeed, an earlier version of the show, with a book by Pulitzer Prize–winner Doug Wright, was yanked less than a week before it was scheduled to open last year, possibly because it bore too great a resemblance to actual theater. Astonishingly, the thing that opened last night is the improvement.
On a slow Thursday night at Picholine, the Upper West Side’s Michelin-starred gem of foam and fromage, Bill Nighy ambles into the kitchen. “Completely sensational,” he tells Terrance Brennan, “and I’m not blowing smoke up your — you know.” Brennan is shaggy, dressed in whites, bouncy and compact — nothing like the gangly British chef-owner Nighy is about to portray several blocks south at the Golden Theatre, when David Hare’s Skylight opens on April 2. Like his character, the actor is so vanishingly wry that friends on the phone have mistakenly apologized for waking him. In the kitchen, he risks mussing a black Anderson & Sheppard tailored suit and a knit tie as dark as purple gets.
It’s late afternoon, halfway through a 12-hour-long rehearsal day for Finding Neverland, the musical version of the 2004 Johnny Depp movie about the playwright J.M. Barrie — creator, 111 years ago, of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, which made his career and also inspired the 1953 Disney animated movie, the 1960 stage-to-screen version starring Mary Martin, the peanut-butter brand, the bus company, the solidly mediocre NBC live event starring Allison Williams last year, and Michael Jackson’s ranch (not to mention the so-called syndrome, which describes commitment-phobic arrested development). At the moment, Matthew Morrison, who plays Barrie, is stage right in the 1,505-seat Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, practicing his dance spins.
You cannot look at Heidi Holland, the heroine of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, without seeing, dimly and slightly out of phase behind her, Wasserstein herself. It’s not just the similarly twinned initials. Wasserstein was born in 1950; Heidi, to judge by the play’s internal chronology, in 1949. Both went to graduate school at Yale (Wasserstein for drama, Heidi for art history) and struggled for years with the problem of being a feminist despite a repressed, can’t-have-it-all, pre-feminist mindset. Both resolved the parenting part of that struggle belatedly and unconventionally, without a husband: Heidi at 40 by adopting a girl; Wasserstein by giving birth to one at the age of 48.
The ick factor is high in Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon, the second of this season’s three Encores! presentations. I’m referring to the story, a mortifying one even by the standards of 1951 Broadway. Set in a California gold rush town in 1853, it was apparently intended to honor the American spirit of optimism in the face of privation, as evidenced by the hardscrabble and nomadic lives of the miners and their hangers-on. What it’s actually about, though, is the problem of sex when there are 400-some lonely men in town and only one woman. Not even one woman: one 16-year-old tomboy, the daughter of the widowed mayor; she sings perhaps the most awkward establishing song ever devised, in which she wonders why everyone keeps staring at her ass. Luckily, she’s taken out of commission, sex-wise, after she falls in love with a handsome young miner who is an outcast Mexican and thus courtly instead of lascivious. But not to worry, gents, there soon arrive a Mormon with two wives (one of whom he’s willing to sell to the highest bidder) and a troupe of “French” dancing girls, available for rental. (They get a fabulous Agnes de Mille–style Dance of the Incoming Harlots.) Though the book, which Lerner took pains to promote as a complete original, touches briefly on other issues — the smallness of man in the vastness of nature, for one — it keeps homing back to its smarmy idée fixe. Over and over, it posits women as a scarce natural resource, not unlike gold, to be claimed, controlled, and commodified. This is an anxiety that ties Paint Your Wagon to other mid-century demimonde musicals like Irma La Douce, New Girl in Town, and latterly Sweet Charity. It’s perhaps not too much of a reach to say that the anxiety also reflects Lerner’s own; he was married eight* times.
The flat lives and flatter affects of the below-40 set have been the subject of enough recent plays to warrant a collective name; how about Theater of the Becalmed? These are generally sour dramedies in which the main characters are stymied and dissatisfied, as if the path to happiness were a stopped escalator they could not figure out how to climb. Annie Baker’s plays fall into this category, demonstrating its tragic potential; The Flick, her three-hour take on slackers at a cinema, deservedly won last year’s Pulitzer Prize. I do not mean it entirely as criticism to say that Melissa James Gibson’s Placebo, at Playwrights Horizons, instead demonstrates the genre’s tragic limitations. Like her earlier plays What Rhymes with America and [sic], it’s smart, droll, and beautifully performed, but so aesthetically anomic you may feel like pounding it (or yourself) on the head with a hammer.
There are a million big reasons that On the Twentieth Century, the 1978 musical by Cy Coleman and Comden and Green, shouldn’t work today: It’s profoundly silly, tonally tricky, too big for the market, and a very hard sing. Indeed, the Roundabout’s delicious revival at the American Airlines crashes intermittently into most of those problems. But there’s nevertheless one small reason — about four-foot-eleven — it works anyway: Kristin Chenoweth. She is a comic genius in a role ideally suited to her gifts.
There are few plays I disliked last year as much as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate, the story of a nasty white Arkansas family discovering in the ancestral plantation a collection of lynching memorabilia. I found it to be melodramatic and sloppy, hysterical without being funny. Now, though, in light of Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon — a Soho Rep production that opened recently at the Theater for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center — I might have to revisit, and upgrade, that opinion. Not just because An Octoroon is so good, but also because its excellences are often hard to distinguish from what I took to be the earlier play’s failings. This one’s hysterical and funny, and so smart it forces you to question the theatrical implications of both terms.
Peggy Lee and Lena Horne lived long enough to star in their own bio-musicals; Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, and Dinah Washington became theatrical subjects only after their deaths. Either way, the resulting shows — some marvelous, some awful — were mostly tarted-up cabaret acts of the then-I-sang-then-I-screwed variety, with an emphasis on the translation of pain into art. If Josephine Baker has been oddly absent from the parade, perhaps it’s because her life, even by the standards of those other drama queens, was just too astonishing to fit the format. She married three times, starting at 13; was an international star by 20; palled around Paris with the Hemingway crowd; spied for the French resistance in World War II; and was the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington. Nevertheless, Cush Jumbo, the young British actress recently seen here opposite Hugh Jackman in The River and as Marc Antony in the Donmar’s all-female Julius Caesar, has set out to tell Baker’s story in, yes, a tarted-up cabaret act, albeit a very ambitious one she calls Josephine and I. That turns out to be one diva too many, especially when the former is improbably rendered less interesting than the latter.
Seldom do costumes provide the bulk of a play’s drama, but in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, the greatest surprises and transformations are all in the clothes. As the curtain rises we find Mirren styled as Elizabeth circa 1995, in a very red dress and gray-frosted wig, talking with Prime Minister John Major during their regular Tuesday-evening meeting at Buckingham Palace. The politics of the discussion are not very exciting — Major is mostly whining about his historically low popularity — but when we soon flash back to Elizabeth’s first such meeting, with Winston Churchill in 1952, the fireworks, such as they are, begin. While the director Stephen Daldry distracts your eye with doings stage right, Mirren, stage left, sheds 44 years in just a few seconds, with a new wig, a new voice, and, seemingly out of nowhere, handsome mourning clothes. (It’s 1952, and King George VI has just died; Elizabeth, his daughter, has acceded to the throne but not yet been crowned.) Peppery Churchill is naturally a more interesting figure than watery John Major, but even so, the real drama happens when his segment is over, as Mirren suddenly turns 38, meeting Prime Minister Harold Wilson in a knee-length brown print number that seems to acknowledge the 1960s while at the same time holding its nose. And so it goes for the rest of the evening, as the decades jump about and the queen’s hips go from broad to svelte and back again.
In the first episode of season five of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the character of Larry David, played by Larry David, is reduced to the cosmic indignity of buying tickets for High Holiday services from a scalper. I mention this not only because you’ll probably have to do the same if you want to see Fish in the Dark, David’s all-but-sold-out Broadway comedy, but also because it encapsulates some of what you’ll find if you succeed. In it, Larry David plays another Larry David–like character, this one named Norman Drexel, an irascible weasel forced by absurd situations into ethically questionable behavior involving a lot of Jews. It’s well built, occasionally thoughtful, and consistently very funny if not transcendently so. In short: You’ll laugh, you’ll cry — well, you’ll cry when the Visa bill comes.
A new play that reads very well on the page risks getting staged above its station. Sad to say, The Mystery of Love & Sex, by Bathsheba Doran, is that kind: engrossing in theory, a botch in practice. Commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater and given a top-flight production there, it might, ironically, have benefited more from shabbier treatment, a process that could have revealed its substantial flaws while there was still time and freedom to do something about them. But when you’ve got Tony Shalhoub and Diane Lane engaged to play two of the four leading characters, and Sam Gold directing, plus all the professional polish LCT typically provides, there’s not much to be done but leave the audience to enjoy what it can and wish the rest were better.
It seemed preordained that Robert Fairchild would one day play Jerry Mulligan, the World War II vet and expat artist portrayed by Gene Kelly in the 1951 film An American in Paris. “Without Gene Kelly, I wouldn’t be dancing,” says Fairchild, a principal at New York City Ballet. “In Singin’ in the Rain—my God, he’s incredible. I saw An American in Paris later on, and it’s the same magic.” Onstage, Fairchild—who started out doing jazz and tap before following his sister to ballet class—strongly calls to mind the Hollywood legend. “He’s handsome, slightly cheeky,” and has a “nonchalant, casual ease,” says Christopher Wheeldon, the choreographer and director of the new musical adaptation of An American in Paris (opening at the Palace Theatre on April 12), in which Fairchild makes his Broadway debut as Mulligan. But, as Wheeldon explains, “we’re not trying to replace Gene. It’s about finding a way to remain inventive while moving a plot that you can follow and that’s also enjoyable to watch.” Here, Fairchild, with a little help from Wheeldon, explains (and shows) exactly how he danced the character to life.
In an interview with the New York Times today, Elisabeth Moss revealed her favorite way to spend an evening: Dramatically expelling saline liquid from her lacrimal glands while being surrounded by hundreds of strangers who have paid for the experience. "I’m never happier than when I’m crying onstage," the actress gushed. "It’s super weird, and it’s what I love to do. Isn’t that strange?" The answer is yes.
In 2006, Sheila Heti started writing a novel about failing to write a play. The play, commissioned by a feminist theater company, was abandoned after five years of workshops. The novel, meanwhile, became How Should a Person Be? — an experimental, semi-autobiographical rumination on friendship and art that was published in Canada in 2010. The book was released in the U.S. two years later, where it found an enthusiastic audience among fans of writers like Chris Kraus. In fact, Kraus herself compared Heti to Mary McCarthy, whose work offered “an explosive and thrilling rejoinder to the serious, male coming-of-age saga," writing that How Should a Person Be? "exuberantly appropriates the same, otherwise tired genre to encompass female experience."
In a funny-awkward meeting that takes place near the beginning Verité, a pair of Norwegian publishers tell Jo Darum, our heroine, that she has a captivating authorial voice but the wrong kind of material. This is half right; she’s actually a dreadful writer, as we know because we’ve already heard her reading to her 8-year-old son from the YA fantasy novel she’s been working on since high school. (It’s about a “simple farm dwarf” out to save the world by, among other things, traversing the Fiery Lake of Boog.) Still, something about Dragonscape has impressed the Norwegians enough to scoop it off the slush pile and offer Jo an opportunity. They won’t publish it; they’re silly, not crazy. But if she will write a memoir that’s sufficiently dark and involves “interesting choices,” they’ll publish that instead.
I don’t mean to suggest that you’re unpatriotic if you aren’t moved by Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sensational new hip-hop biomusical at the Public. But in order to dislike it you’d pretty much have to dislike the American experiment. The conflict between independence and interdependence is not just the show’s subject but also its method: It brings the complexity of forming a union from disparate constituencies right to your ears. It may confuse your ears, too: Few are the theatergoers who will be familiar with all of Miranda’s touchstones. I caught the verbal references to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Sondheim, West Side Story, and 1776, but other people had to point out to me the frequent hat-tips to hip-hop: Biggie Smalls, the Fugees, “Blame It (On the Alcohol).” And I’m sure that historians in the audience (the show was “inspired by” Ron Chernow’s 800-page Hamilton biography) will catch references that the rest of us fail to notice. (“The world turned upside down,” a repeated phrase in a number about the Battle of Yorktown, is the name of the ballad supposedly played by Redcoat musicians upon Cornwallis’s surrender there, in 1781.) But for all its complexity — its multi-strand plotting and exploding rhyme-grenades — Hamilton is neither a challenge nor a chore. It’s just great.
Though The Iceman Cometh is generally considered one of Eugene O’Neill’s greatest plays, it did not win (as four of his others did) the Pulitzer Prize; the Pulitzer is not, after all, awarded for Sadness. Nor do the judges give extra points for difficulty, and Iceman is famously difficult on the director, the actors, and the audience. It’s not just the length, all five hours of it (though the 2012 Goodman Theater production, now in residency at BAM, is relatively swift at four hours and 45 minutes). It’s the weight. O’Neill seems to have loaded the play, which was written in the late 1930s but not produced until 1946, with a lifetime’s worth of ambition to make a comprehensive statement about the human condition. A lot of statements and a lot of humans make for heavy lifting.
Note: Between Riverside and Crazy, which Jesse Green reviewed during its run in August at the Atlantic Theater Company, reopens this evening at Second Stage. The cast remains the same, with one change: Ron Cephas Jones is now in the role of Junior, formerly played by Ray Anthony Thomas. It will run through March 22.
Even on the rare occasions when they’re legible, the notes I take in the theater are generally useless — except in those cases where boredom causes them to mutate into to-do lists. I make no apology; there are plays to which a perfectly reasonable critical response may be “wash delicates” or “order Netflix.” In fact, it’s a lack of notes that’s most telling. After Between Riverside and Crazy last night, I checked my Gold Fibre Antique Ivory pad and found that once I’d gotten past my pre-show ritual of describing the set (an excellent revolving Upper West Side apartment by Walt Spangler), I’d written … nothing. As soon as the first scene began, I was gone: lost in its world.
When a play is about race, should the playwright’s matter? I found myself asking this question after seeing Rasheeda Speaking, a wild ride and a welcome surprise from the severely hit-or-miss New Group, now enjoying its first season at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The author, Joel Drake Johnson, is a fixture of Chicago’s theater scene, with five “Jeff” nominations for playwriting. (The Joseph Jefferson Awards are Chicago’s Tony equivalent.) But he’s little-known here, and perhaps that’s just as well. It was often too easy to approach Bruce Norris’s race-baiting Clybourne Park through the knowledge that he is white. If you’re like me, though, you will have to struggle to sort out your feelings about Rasheeda Speaking without being able to take offense at Johnson’s whiteness or cover from his blackness or context from anything else that may be true about him. In any case, it’s a wallop of a play, brilliantly acted by Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest, that leaves you scrambling to puzzle out its implications on your own.