Friday, June 17, 2011

A Deviation: Taking a Bite of the Apple


            I used to be a New York junkie:  trekking to the Big Apple every year to see as many shows as possible in a finite amount of time.  Given the disadvantage of living in Los Angeles (one of many), I had let several years go by between trips and, though I had survived the withdrawal symptoms, I was itching to get back.  As an actor, it seems both prudent and necessary to keep abreast of the New York theater scene and—as such—I had some serious catching up to do.   

            So I went and did a Broadway blitzkrieg.  Here are my takeaways: 

Sister Act:  Two powerhouse leads (Patina Miller & Victoria Clark), an energetic cast and increasingly splashy sets and costumes, turn a better-than-average show into a knock-out, crowd-pleasing winner. 

The Book of Mormon:  The raunchiest lyrics and most irreverent book on Broadway have made this the “must-see” musical of the season.  But it’s really just a loving throw-back to the style of simpler, old-fashioned musicals.  A witty and peppy, spoof-filled score (ala “Avenue Q”, no surprise) and a winning cast make this potty-mouthed musical a naughty little treat.   It was the only Broadway show I saw that isn’t based on a movie, a television show or a comic book; that originality is, in my mind, is the most laudatory element of all. 

Mary Poppins:  The sets and magic tricks are as jaw-dropping as money can buy, but Disney messed with the movie’s magic, leaving this Mary to only fly in fits and starts.  The familiar songs work, but the new ones are forgettable.  “Brimstone & Treacle”, sold by a scene-stealing evil Nanny Andrews (Ruth Gottschall), is the exception.   But for a Disney-hungry throng, even a less than “practically perfect” Mary is clearly enough.  

My Big Gay Italian Wedding:  A tiny, Off-Broadway event which delivers everything you could want from such a venue and such a titled show:  a hammy castful of whackos are thrown into a hysterical (if slightly over-long) farce revolving around a gay, Italian boy marrying his Polish lover.  Oy, vey, Maria! 

The Addams Family:  The strangest family, their house and “pets” are all brought lovingly to life with Bebe Neuwirth and Rachel Potter outstanding as Morticia and Wednesday (although Zachary James’ underused Lurch is also spot-on).   Unfortunately, the book and score are merely serviceable, making the visit less satisfying than one—living or dead—would hope.    

Billy Elliot:  Based on the powerhouse film, the Lee Hall/Elton John musical manages to mine the right story elements to allow for a completely satisfying retelling.  Fortunately, the direction and cast back that up with innovation and energy in abundance, pushing the show into the realm of the amazing.  Whereas Mary Poppins flounders, Billy Elliot flies. 

Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark:  Julie Taymor’s visionary touch makes the graphic novel world literally come to life—on stage and in (and over) the audience.  The sets, costumes and acrobatics are inspired, impressive and thrilling; the cast gives their all through every moment. But the book, lyrics and music are largely banal. T.V.Carpio makes the mythical Arachne's haunting musical moments shine, but the rest of the cast all too often seems to be screaming to be heard over the din of the orchestra—as though someone thought volume would make up for unimaginative lyrics and a pedestrian rock score.  Still, the crowd cheers the hero flying over their heads; perhaps that is enough for the lowest common denominator.   Works for Mary Poppins. 

            So there you go.   My two cents only, mind you.  I say you should never listen to anyone you don’t know well; that the criticism of someone whose opinions are not ones you agree with on a regular basis will most likely bear no relation to the opinions you will form on your own.  And those are the only ones that count.   

In the end, only you can know what you like.  And you’ll never know for certain unless you go.   Over all, there's great stuff happening on the Great White Way.  So do go.

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