The Lights of Broadway | Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold | Scene4 Magazine | May 2022 | www.scene4.com

The Lights of Broadway

Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold

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 impossibility!"

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 commentary.

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 Stephen Foster.

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. 


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Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold 's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2022 Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold
 ©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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