For more than a year and a half they were dark.
Those lights – Times Square – glittering symbols of the "city that
never sleeps" were dimmed, theatres shuttered, an industry at a standstill and
an art form in anguished silence. There were journalists- desperate to
find copy- positing in pieces headlines that ran "Is New York City Dead?"
I remember thinking then with a
fierceness of someone born there and living in exile, "Never! New York is
resilient. New Yorkers have survived so many crises and always emerged
indomitably alive and well. New York without Broadway is simply an
But it has been exactly two years before
I have had a chance to return and to witness first-hand the vindication of my
theory. This March I took my first trip to the Big Apple to enjoy five
glorious days walking, shopping, dining, seeing friends, and – yes
– taking in shows. Yes, there were reminders of the pandemic
– little tents set up throughout the city for testing, hours on
restaurants and shops curtailed – but on Broadway the lights blazed
again. The theatres were full and the vibrancy had returned.
The enjoyment of theatre-going was
heightened by being in the company of a group from Maine State Music Theatre
– all theatre buffs like myself – and the pleasure deepened by the
wonderful post-show talkbacks led by MSMT's Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark.
Our first outing – and the one which proved to be the highlight of the trip
for me – was the second preview of Paradise Square. The new musical,
conceived by Larry Kirwan with book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas,
and Kirwan, music by Jason Howland, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and
Masi Asare, is an inspiring tale of the shared lives of free African-American
and Irish immigrants in New York's Five Points neighborhood during the
Civil War. With the War, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Draft, racism and
prejudice as a dramatic backdrop, the cast of black and white characters
struggle to survive and to maintain the spirit of brotherhood that this tiny
slum neighborhood has always embraced. The tightly written book
provides plenty of twists and turns, many provided by history, in the plot
culminating in the deadly 1863 Draft Riots which blazed through the
community, as well as colorfully drawn characters both fictional and
historic (such as Stephen Foster). The score features a tapestry of Gaelic
-inspired tunes, African-American dance and song, and parlor songs of the
period. The skillful intertwining of Stephen Foster melodies, many recast
in an ironic light, not only advances the plot but adds perspective and
Directed by Moises Kaufman with poetic musical staging by Alex Sanchez,
the show features stirring choreography by Bill T. Jones, who gets to
recreate the Irish step dances and African-American rhythms of the period
with vivid and exciting virtuosity. The multi-tiered set by Allen Moyer that
suggests skeletal tenements forms a background for locales such as Nelly
O'Brien's tavern and the streets of the Bowery neighborhood with vivid
period costumes by Toni-Leslie James.
The cast is extraordinary, headed by a blazing performance by Joaquina
Kalukango as Nelly O' Brien, bringing down the house in her eleventh
-hour number, "Let It Burn." Chilina Kennedy is tough and tender as Annie
Lewis. Both Sidney DuPont as Washington Henry, the escaped slave, and
A.J. Shively as a recently arrived immigrant Owen Duignan, are
impassioned dancers and foils for each other. John Dossett makes a
sinister Frederic Tiggens with fine vocal and dramatic performances by
Kevin Dennis as Mike Quinlan, Nathaniel Stampley as Reverend Lewis,
Gabrielle McClinton as Angelina Baker, and Jacob Fishel as the disguised
Not only is Paradise Square a poignant reminder that division and discord
need not be the default state of mankind, but it is a powerful testament to
the fact that history has a human face – and, indeed, a human heart.
The production of Stephen Sondheim's Company, which is essentially the
same one I saw in London several years ago, has changed the genders of
the heroine and several of the main characters, and in Marianne Elliott's
direction contextualized and contemporized a bit what was originally a tale
of existential angst. In this version, which Sondheim blessed before his
death, Bobbie is a successful, unattached woman in her thirties grappling
with the specter of a ticking biological clock and her own nagging inability
to commit. Reversing the genders of the protagonist seems perfectly
realistic in 2022, just as introducing a same-sex couple as one of the
married pairs does. None of this is particularly revolutionary, but what
does seem burdensome is Elliott's insistence on setting the drama in
tangible locales - and adding sequences like the "Tic Tock Ballet" in which
Bobbie has a nightmare about marriage and motherhood. The realistic
settings of other couples' apartments, terraces, a swank bar, Bobbie's own
bedroom reinforce the quotidien rather than the inner uncertainty and
neuroses of the heroine and her friends. And the predilection for broader
comedy gives the whole show a sitcom feel that, I believe, misses the
darker side of Sondheim's lament.
With that as the dramatic conception, the physical production offers some
striking visuals: in Bunny Christies' claustrophobic New York apartment
which expands and morphs into other locales and her striking chic
costumes including Bobbie's habitual red outfits. The cast was all aptly
chosen dramatically though a few proved vocal disappointments, among
them Etai Benson's "Not Getting Married Today" which lacked the
freneticism needed and Bobby Conte's too casual "Another Hundred
People Just Got Off of the Train." And then there is the matter of
transposing a score conceived for a soaring tenor for a mezzo soprano
. Katrina Lenk, while appealing and charismatic as Bobbie, just does not
have the vocal allure needed. But then there is Patti Lupone as Joanne,
who provides a master class in being at once a star and an ensemble player.
Her second act "Ladies Who Lunch" proves well worth the wait.
If there is one thing I came away from this production feeling is how
blissfully brilliant Sondheim's score is. Fifty years later it, remains a
succession of incomparable melodies that pulse with character and passion
and of lyrics that cut to the quick with their incisiveness, sarcasm, and wit.
It is precisely for this reason that I so ardently wish the production team
had chosen to let this score and its characters stand on their own and come
to life from within rather than being externalized.
The final theatre excursion was to see Hugh Jackman in The Music Man.
Despite all the anticipation, the hype, the hysterical fans, for my taste, this
evening proved disappointing. From the moment I entered the Winter
Garden to be greeted by a dingy red barn-like curtain, something seemed
sadly amiss. Meredith Wilson's Music Man is one of the most joyous
concoctions in the musical canon, and its score is both cutting edge clever
in its rap-like numbers and traditionally legitimate in its soaring romantic
ballads. It needs strong vocal performers to find the heart of the piece. And
sadly, despite the star roster, this was frequently not the case.
Jerry Zaks' direction was serviceable, if lackluster, relying very heavily on
Warren Carlyle's augmented choreography. There is more dancing in this
show than in some productions, driven, no doubt, by the fact that Hugh
Jackman is still a mesmerizing dancer. Slim, fit, with a smile to reach the
rafters, he shines in the big numbers like "Seventy-six Trombones,"
"Marian the Librarian," and "Shipoopi." But some of the other
choreographed moments such as the Tommy Djilas-Zaneeta duo are underwhelming.
Santo Loquasto's sets opt for a two-dimensional look of a children's pop-up
book, and his costumes are curiously muted, even a touch shabby in the
finale. Visually, there is nothing which distracts from the pair of stars at
the center of the production, and perhaps, this is intentional.
Jackman is always worth the price of admission. There is a charisma, an
ease, an unpretentious generosity to his performance that carries across
the footlights. He LOVES what he is doing and loves sharing it with his
colleagues and audience. He is a sexy, mischievous, captivating Harold
Hill, but somehow he misses the great transformation of the character. He
is not jaded con man enough at the start to have a soul-wrenching change
of heart when he falls for Marian. And, alas, he cannot sing some of the
score's most memorable music - notably the romantic duet "Til There Was
You" which becomes a solo for Marian and a brief reprise for Harold.
Elsewhere, he croons agreeably but also lacks the incisive diction for
numbers like "There's Trouble in River City."
Sutton Foster, however, is utterly miscast. She belts most of the songs,
including those like "Til There Was You" which requires a beautiful, high
lyric soprano. Her rendition of "My White Knight" was genuinely painful in
its inability to deliver the line and legato. And perhaps most disappointing
of all, she chooses to portray Marian as a tough cookie in the first act - a
kind of aggressively rebellious feminist – a choice that has no basis at all in
Wilson's book or in turn-of-the-century behavior. The remainder of the
cast is serviceable though Jefferson Mays and Jayne Houdyshell as the
Shinns make a bland couple, and Remy Auberjonois is not nasty enough as
Charlie Cowell. The children's ensemble was a lively group on the evening
I attended, and Benjamin Pajak is an especially bright Winthrop.
The audience did not seem to share my tepid response. Indeed, many were
returning to see a show they knew by heart from movies and high school
productions, laughing at every joke. Others eagerly applauded every song
and piece of comic business delivered by Jackman and Sutton, including an
artfully funny moment in the courting scene. While it felt good to see
Meredith Wilson's labor of love enjoying a renascence, I could not help to
yearn for a production that was truer to a period aesthetic and delivered
more vocal satisfaction.
Indeed, perhaps the most rewarding take away from The Music Man, as
from the entire three days of theatre-going, was to see the theatres full, the
crowds jamming Times Square, jockeying for tables at popular after-show
restaurants like 'Joe Allen', and celebrating loud and long the wondrous
site of the lights of Broadway.