Mr. First-Nighter is a theater professional, working with directors, producers and writers on some of Broadway’s biggest and longest running hit shows. In addition to being a Tony Award voter, he is involved in numerous current productions.
Because of his day job, this is published under his nom de plume.
NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS
By Mr. First-Nighter
I’m a Tony voter. As such, I see everything for free… which is a distinctly mixed blessing. As evidence, I offer the following collection of thumbnail reviews and arbitrary grades for the season’s shows.
First, the plays:
A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE – Martin (Lt of Inishmore, Pillowman, Beauty Queen of Leenane) McDonagh’s new black comedy has terrifically quirky performances by Chris Walken as a violent character with a mother fixation who has been hunting for his hand for 47 years, and Sam Rockwell, as a smarmy, scary hotel clerk with delusions of heroism. There is also a drug-dealing couple who have conned a guy you don’t want to cross. Throw in a suitcase filled with severed hands and you’ve got a fun night of theater. Unlike McDonagh’s other plays, this one doesn’t add up to very much, and it sort of peters out by the end, but it’s a taut, grisly entertainment. [B]
A STEADY RAIN – This is a solid police procedural with stunning performances by Wolverine and 007 and effectively minimalist design. It is told primarily in a dual monologue style, with only occasional outbursts of dialogue and interaction, but it is a surprisingly moving, if minor, drama [B+]
ENRON – This exhilarating new play by Brit Lucy Prebble uses myriad theatrical pyrotechnics to explore the dark underbelly of the American Dream. Naturally, it failed to get a “best play” nomination and closed abruptly after a much lauded premiere production in London. Norbert Leo Butz is scarily compelling as the visionary entrepreneur / avatar-of-the-free-market-apocalypse Jeff Skilling. The supporting players, direction, design are all first rate. Even the musical elements are innovative. Sure, the play is more flash than substance, but it’s still pretty good. [A-]
IN THE NEXT ROOM, or THE VIBRATOR PLAY – Sarah Ruhl’s new work is a comic, poetic and profound rumination on a woman’s quest for empowerment. It features great performances by Laura Benanti and Michael Cerveris, and a final scene that is startlingly romantic in its imagery and moving in its dramatic effect. It’s the best play I’ve seen in quite a while… and not just because of the girl-on-girl action! [A]
LOOPED – Valerie Harper is Tallulah Bankhead, in this slight piece of theater about an uptight film editor and his sound engineer trying to hold the fading icon together, as she drinks, swears, snorts, leers, and smart-asses her way through a “looping session” to re-record some dialogue for her last film. The first act is amusing, in a garish campy way, but Act II devolves into a psycho-sexual soap opera as the great lady forces the editor into revealing his secret shame. Harper gives a moving performance that could easily have become a cartoon but doesn’t. The editor is an awful role, so the actor should be held blameless. The play is atrocious but not without entertainment value, if you leave at the intermission [C-]
NEXT FALL – This off-Broadway play by Geoff Naufts and his Naked Angels theater company was helped to Broadway by Elton John. It is well told, surprisingly funny, mostly well acted, and even beautiful in moments. But it’s also a heavy-handed examination of religion and gay sexuality that alternates actual insight with utter banality. Still, it’s a worthy, even if not entirely successful, effort. [B-]
RACE – David Mamet directed his new play, a courtroom drama without a courtroom… and, unfortunately, without much drama. James Spader plays a slight variation on his BOSTON LEGAL character, and, while David Alan Grier is solid as his law partner, Kerry Washington is screechingly irritating (as almost all Mamet female characters are) as their new associate. Richard Thomas, as the wealthy client hiring the lawyers to defend him from a rape charge, floats in and out as if from another play. There is still some snap in Mamet’s dialogue, sparklingly brisk and brusque in that typically Mametian way… it’s just his thinking that’s gotten fuzzy and his storytelling that has gone flaccid. [C]
RED – This overrated Brit import by screenwriter John Logan is a portrait of the artist as an irritating bully. Clichés abound in this mediocre play, but it’s a brilliant production, well directed and designed, and acted with exclamation points by Alfred Molina as artist Mark Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his young assistant. Sure, it’s a lot of pretension and self-seriousness about a guy who painted red and black rectangles, but still entertaining in spots. However, for all its railing against the commodification of “art”, this play is the embodiment of it. [C+]
SUPERIOR DONUTS – An entertaining little play by Tracy (AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY) Letts; it doesn’t attempt much, but it succeeds on its own terms. An aging, disconnected ex- hippy running the family donut shop on the wrong side of the tracks in Chicago is brought back to life by the fast-talking young black man who comes to work for him. As always in such plays, their pasts haunt them. Michael McKean is a revelation as a dramatic lead. [B]
TIME STANDS STILL – This new play by Pulitzer-winner Donald Margulies is slightly interesting and somewhat amusing, but not really much of either. A great cast (Laura Linney, Brian Darcy James, Eric Bogosian and Alicia Silverstone) are left floundering in this “issues play” grafted onto a soap opera. It has ideas about the moral and philosophical role of the observer / reporter, among other things, but none of the play’s insights are particularly original or fully fleshed out. The soap opera aspects are hindered by characters that are basically unlikable enough that you don’t really care who ends up together. Silverstone, alone, makes her ditsy character heart-felt and sympathetic. [C+]
WISHFUL DRINKING – Princess Leia’s 1-woman show is amusing, entertaining, but ultimately a self-indulgent exercise by Carrie Fisher in transmuting her private tragedies into public comedy. Rambling, artless, pointless, except as a promo for electroshock therapy. [C]
A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE – This Arthur Miller revival is terrifically acted by Liev Shrieber and Scarlett Johanssen, as well as a spot-on supporting cast, with terrific design and direction. The play is vintage early Miller, with a lowly working-class family enacting a Greek tragedy with the inevitability of death. [A]
AFTER MISS JULIE – Brit Patrick Marber adapted Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” to post-war England, on the night that the Labor party defeated Churchill. Is there anything more tedious than class conflicts that keep lovers apart, inevitably resulting in suicide? This melodrama is well enough acted, I suppose, and Sienna Miller is smoking hot, but why oh why must we be subjected to it? [D]
COLLECTED STORIES – This Broadway revival of Donald Marguilies’s off-Broadway play is beautifully rendered, with Linda Lavin at her best, playing the writing professor / surrogate mother to Sarah Paulson’s student/assistant/surrogate daughter. A tale of teachers and students, and mothers and daughters, becoming colleagues and friends, who can hurt each other as only those close to us can. The play is utterly obvious and predictable, going exactly where you think it will, but it’s so well executed, it’s hard to fault. [A-]
FENCES – August Wilson’s play is as close to DEATH OF A SALESMAN as the 2nd half of the 20th century has produced. But this great play is somewhat undermined by the miscast Denzel Washington, who works hard but is ultimately unconvincing in the role made famous by James Earl Jones. Washington simply lacks the aging but still imposing physicality the role demands, and he seems to be overcompensating on stage for his otherwise too subtle screen acting skills. Viola Davis, however, is terrific as his wife, and the play, therefore, becomes a more balanced story about a marriage and a family, which may not be bad thing. The supporting cast is strong, the staging thoughtful and evocative, and a great background score composed by Branford Marsalis adds a great deal of emotional frisson. [B]
HAMLET – Jude Law proves he’s an actor, not just a movie star, with a great performance in this difficult play. Were the rest of the cast equally good, it would have been amazing, but they weren’t so it wasn’t. Ophelia was particularly irritating. This is the most complete version of the text I’ve seen on stage, which means it meanders and drags along in Act II. What did that Shakespeare fellow know anyway? [B]
LEND ME A TENOR – Ken Ludwig’s hilarious backstage farce is not as hilarious as it’s been before. Perhaps it’s that, while Tony Shaloub’s brilliant comic turn as the opera impresario is perfect in its shallowness, Anthony LaPaglia’s more heartfelt performance as the drunken star tenor is slower than farce can reasonably bear. While both performances are good, the two styles conflict, and Stanley Tucci’s direction is slack, overall, where farce requires velocity. [C+]
PRESENT LAUGHTER – The Roundabout’s revival of this old Noel Coward chestnut is well staged and utterly pointless, with garish cartoon characters running about in all their hammy glory. It’s a lot of slamming doors and phone calls, stirring up “who-is-sleeping-with-whom” faux-suspense for no purpose. If you find this type of thing funny, you’re probably over 70. Why do they keep producing this dated nonsense? Life is too short, and tickets are too expensive, and TV is free [D]
THE MIRACLE WORKER – This classic drama has been revived in the round, which means that, no matter where you sit, you are guaranteed to miss something at some point. That being said, young Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) does a fine job opposite the terrific Alison Pill, as the reluctant student and her determined teacher. The play still works. I dare you not to be moved. [B+]
THE ROYAL FAMILY – Unfunny farce is one of the most painful things a human being can be subjected to. Confronted with not 1 but 2 intermissions and the prospect of an interminable evening, I fled after Act I [F]
Now for the musicals:
AMERICAN IDIOT – Green Day’s rock album is turned into a Broadway musical. The music is powerful, energetic and surprisingly melodic. The performances are first rate, the direction and design is unique and thrilling. The story, however, veers from banal to ludicrous without ever passing over any terrain one might describe as compelling. The notion that, if you’re an idiot raised on TV, you’re bound to make some pretty stupid decisions, seems self evident without having to belabor the point. Maybe if you were a 17-year old, you’d take this as an insightful cautionary tale, but as a 49-year old, I found no sympathy or tragedy in the plight of the characters. They were just stupid and pathetic and deserved everything they got. But I felt that way about RENT and SPRING AWAKENING, too, so take that observation however you will.
While this is still the first genuine rock score I’ve ever heard played on Broadway without being watered down or emasculated, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Rock & Pop songs are generally declaratory… they state a particular idea or emotion. They do not often develop character or further a narrative, which is required in musical theater. So, for a show incorporating such a score, it becomes imperative that the book be really good at that kind of narrative development, like JERSEY BOYS is. But this book fails on that account, as well. [B]
COME FLY AWAY – One of the longest nights I’ve spent in a theater this year, despite its mere 2 hour running time. This plotless, pointless, endless dance piece by Twyla Tharp is bone-crunchingly, mind-numbingly dull and repetitive, generally humorless, and totally unengaging. The dancers were nothing special, the production uninspired. The only good point was hearing Sinatra’s disembodied voice singing some classic songs, backed by a really good jazz quartet, supported by a swinging 12-piece horn section. I wanted the dancers to get the hell out of the way so I could hear and see the band more clearly. [D-]
EVERYDAY RAPTURE – This show is in every way ruptured. What is this bad cabaret act doing on Broadway? Apparently, it made a wrong turn at DON’T TELL MAMA. [F]
FELA! – If you like “Afrobeat” music (a fusion of African rhythms, Motown bass, jazz horns and guitars, tribal dancing girls and political lyrics), then this is the show for you. If you don’t, it’s not. I don’t, so it wasn’t. There is some attempt to delineate the life of Fela, the Nigerian musician/political activist and mama’s boy that this concert disguised as a show is ostensibly about, but it’s mostly of the first person narrative, non-dramatic variety. The only truly dramatized theatrical moments occur toward the end of act II, when Fela dreams of seeing his dead mother during a breathtaking blacklight dance, building to a beautiful aria by the incomparable Lilias White. Otherwise, despite some exciting dance moments along the way, the droning repetition of the music, the largely undramatized story structure, the obviousness of the plot (such as it is) and heavy-handedness of the themes rendered me nearly catatonic. [C]
MEMPHIS – This new musical is an overly earnest and eye-rollingly obvious musical about race in the early days of rock n roll. A young Memphis hick in the 1950s becomes a popular radio and TV DJ promoting black music for white audiences until his romantic relationship with a black singer destroys his career in an era of miscegenation laws. It’s slickly mounted and well performed by appealing leads and a talented supporting cast, with occasionally uplifting musical moments. But having your heart in the right place doesn’t make up for a lack of dramatic inspiration, or even interest, beyond the most superficial, clichéd situations. Still, it contains probably this year’s best original musical score, which is something, I suppose. [C+]
MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET – A musical dramatization of the night at Sun Records where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins gathered for an impromptu jam. It has great music, of course, but the songs are often interrupted by banal exposition, either by or about Sun record producer Sam Phillips. I found myself wishing they would just shut up and sing. The guys playing Cash and Lewis were terrific, Perkins was just OK, but Elvis was bizarrely awful. Overall, though, it’s an enjoyable, albeit brief and superficial, entertainment. Still, it could have been so much more. [B-]
SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM – A thoroughly entertaining cabaret, featuring talented performers (Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Norm Lewis, Tom Wopat, etal.) doing songs from the Sondheim songbook, accompanied by video clips of the Great Man himself talking about his life and work. While the design and production were innovative, the evening is a rambling and shapeless piece of hagiography. Enjoyable anyway, especially for cultists. [B-]
THE ADDAMS FAMILY – Nathan Lane shines in this sporadically amusing but mostly tepid new musical stage adaptation of the famous cartoon strip / TV series / movie series / animated series / lunch box / pop cultural phenomenon. Lane’s performance is as funny as you’d expect, but also surprisingly touching. Kevin Chamberlin’s uncle fester and Jackie Hoffman’s grandmamma are also wonderfully engaging characters, but everyone else (including Bebe Neuwirth) are various degrees of forgettable. The staging and design is often cleverer than the book, which has traded Charles Addams’ mordant wit for silly gags, shtick and schmaltz. To the extent the score makes any impression at all, it’s not a good one. If mediocrity was the mortal sin the NY Times pretends it is, this show would be damned to hell, but crass commercialism + craft is not necessarily a damnable equation [C-]
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC – This revival of Sondheim’s chamber musical about love’s pains and joys walks the thin line between farce and poignancy with great skill. Catherine Zeta-Jones is every inch the musical theater star and keeps up with the legendary Angela Lansbury. The secondary roles are less successfully rendered and the physical production is kind of clunky, but overall a beautiful work, with a score that features some of Sondheim’s best and most delicately crafted songs. [A-]
BYE-BYE BIRDIE – This tuneful relic of a bygone era has no reason to be revived, but it’s genial enough. John Stamos and Gina Gershon have little chemistry but both are adequately engaging in the leads. That incomparable clown, Bill Irwin, gives a bizarre, over-the-top performance as the small town dad, but he gives the show its only comedic beats. The direction and design are too self-conscious by half, but what else are going to do with this dated work? Surely the sexist and racist stereotyping inherent in this show shouldn’t be left to speak for itself [C-]
FINIAN’S RAINBOW – This is one of the best scores in Broadway history (which is saying something), attached to one of the stupidest, clunkiest, most antiquated books in Broadway history (which is also saying something). The production looks like a cheap bus-&-truck production, but the cast is good, the voices great. [B-]
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES – This revival of the Jerry Herman/Harvey Fierstein musical is as toe-tapping, cornballishly sentimental, and old fashioned as ever…which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Thoroughly entertaining, with a charming and believable Kelsey Grammar opposite the garishly cartoonish, but ultimately touching, Douglas Hodge. Well done, ladies! Brava! [A-]
PROMISES, PROMISES – This revival of the Bacharach / Neil Simon musical (skillfully adapted from the great Billy Wilder comedy, THE APARTMENT) has charm, humor and tunefulness oozing of every nook and cranny. You barely even notice the seams where they stuck in a few extra Bacharach hits (I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER, A HOUSE IS NOT A HOME). Sean Hayes is totally winning and Kristin Chenoweth is the adorable songbird she always is, albeit somewhat miscast. You’ll smile `til your face aches. [A-]
RAGTIME – they’ve made this epic musical into a more intimate, moving experience without losing its grand scope. And it’s still one of the best scores written for Broadway in the last 20 years. The fact that it closed so quickly, while ROCK OF AGES keeps running, makes a sad statement about Broadway economics. [A]
As for the few shows I missed this season:
- BURN THE FLOOR – I knew this ballroom dancing thingy was not going to get any nominations, so I spared myself the pain of sitting through it.
- IRVING BERLIN’S WHITE XMAS – I saw this mediocre stage adaptation of the Crosby / Kaye movie musical last season. But it has turned up again, like a bad nose job. Pass.
- BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS – This Neil Simon revival received fairly decent reviews, but closed so quickly I had no opportunity to check it out. A shame, really.
- OLEANNA – On the other hand, this Mamet revival got pretty poor notices before its quick departure and I minded missing it not one iota.
- ALL ABOUT ME – Dame Edna and Michael Feinstein? Brutal reviews? Don’t blink, because it was going, going, gone.
Well, that’s the lot.
Broadway 2009-2010… so long, and thanks for all the fish.