One of my gigs, for a time, was screening applications for musical theatre awards and grants. And somewhere around a decade ago, I came across an adaptation of a world literature classic (I think by Dickens but that’s irrelevant). It was intriguing for the first, say, five pages, because the sung text seemed to exist outside the story, looking upon it in an analytical, narrative way, rather like musicalizing a Cliff’s Notes summary. What an interesting way of setting up the world, I thought. Then I got past the opening sequence and onto pages 6, 7, 8 and onward and the approach never changed, never segued into real character writing, the characters only ever describing their states of being, never inhabiting them, never leaving sung text for spoken, and I realized this was not a deliberate technique, but a naïve notion of adaptation. It was all the author or authors knew how to do. As to the score (demos were included of course), there was a certain amount of proficiency, but it was mostly generic stuff filtered through indicia of the storytelling nationality and era, flourishes of, again, generic, period-place color. Obviously I set the submission aside without positive recommendation. And I might have forgotten it if I didn’t eventually hit another musical just like it. And another. Over the years I may have encountered a dozen or more. All by different writers, all employing exactly the same approach, as if it were a codified school of writing, or even evidence of a pathology.
Thus, my overriding reaction to Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (book, music and lyrics by Dave Molloy) was amazement—and ultimately a bow to the inevitable—that one of these had finally slipped through the cracks into production. What characterizes this one is a kinda sorta pop rock, genre free-form score, put through a kinda sorta techno-yet-classical Russian filter.
Adapted from Tolstoy’s War and Peace (for realz), it originally debuted at the small off-off Broadway venue Ars Nova (where I did not see it), then re-opened downtown at Kazino, a Russian Restaurant in a tent, within the meat packing district (where I did see it), and prior to the show, you were indeed fed, which helped, if you like that kind of food, and, it being in my ancestry, I do. To complement the locale, the show had an imaginative production (director Rachel Chavkin), lavishly designed; an environmental staging (rather like the Chelsea Candide, for those whose point of reference goes back that far), happening on connected ramps and playing spaces all around the restaurant. The production, and Kazino, shortly thereafter migrated uptown to the theatre district.
Now the production has moved from tent to Broadway mainstage, the Imperial Theatre having been transformed into an environmental playing field that works similarly but not as simply. Where previously different levels were separated by a step or two, in a shotgun configuration that spanned the length of the restaurant, now pathways start in the aisles, climb onto what was once (but is no more) a traditional proscenium, and go higher and higher toward an exit door far upstage beyond which are a bank of blinding lights.
The cast is mostly but not entirely the same, and while my initial review described them as a crackerjack ensemble, at the Imperial I found myself less impressed on aggregate, with regard to acting and singing; and I think that’s because, despite the elegance of setting and design (including costumes), the intimacy of an up close setting renders personal quirk bigger, and forgives a degree of scruffiness, which can even be perceived as a novel advantage. In a Broadway setting, though, you have to fill the space, and I’m not talking about volume, I’m talking about presence and technique. I don’t mean to say the cast is inadequate to the task; my “downgrade” is one of degrees, not a total change of mind. They’re still a talented lot. But for me, there’s now a dysynchrony between the material’s delivery and the architectural setting. But bear in mind, it has captured the fancies of many, critics and audiences alike. They have not screened the many scripts written in the same style that I have. To them it is an anomaly, sui generis, and to the extent that it actually got produced, it is.
But in truth, NPGC1812 is no better and no worse than most of the others of its type that I screened, though perhaps it is more ambitious, focusing on several story threads from a sprawling doorstopper classic of world literature from the other side of the globe. Whether or not you go for the ride will depend entirely upon whether or not you (a) buy into the approach of its opening moments and (b) whether or not you can be satisfied that those opening moments essentially define the remaining two-plus hours, because the show is a one-trick pony. And you really have to like the pony.
Broadway’s Harmony Sounds Great But Lacks Emotive Power
I don’t think I knew, going in, that Harmony, the new musical from book/lyric writer, Bruce Sussman (Ted Tally’s Coming Attractions) and music writer Barry Manilow now on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, is based on a true story. But as it sings itself out to us, it starts by taking us back to the Carnegie Hall stage of 1933, but then shifts even further back to Berlin, Germany 1927, giving us a clearer picture of what might be coming at us. Panning out in tones not so subtle and utilizing the narrative structure of a standard memory play, a narrator, played by the endearing Chip Zien (Broadway’s original Baker in Sondheim/Lapine’s Into the Woods), stands forward, center stage, ushering us into the past and this story. His name, he tells us, is Rabbi, and he once was, back in the day, a member of a comedic singing group in Berlin made up of six young men who could harmonize and craft a joke like few others could. The group, ‘The Comedian Harmonists‘, was an internationally famous, all-male German close harmony ensemble that performed between 1928 and 1934. As one of the most successful musical groups in Europe before World War II, they steadfastly rose to fame and fortune as the Nazis came to power in Germany, and within that historic framework, the dye has been cast and the stage set.
Zien is most definitely an affable figure, one guaranteed to take us through this complicated and emotional story with expert ease, and we feel safe in his testimony. The elder Rabbi pulls us in, ushering us back to the first days of the group, and joining in with the fun whenever he can. It’s a tender beginning, and as directed and choreographed with energy by Warren Carlyle (Broadway’s After Midnight), we are forever cognizant of where this all will be heading. Zien quickly lets us into the framework, informing us that he is the only surviving member of this long-forgotten troop of singers, and he’s here to tell us their story so they won’t be forgotten. Noting the historical landscape, we can’t help but know where we are being delivered to, and it’s not all that shocking where we will end up.
With a group name that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, they come together with a joyful clarity, delivering the cool notes of a well-cast harmonic group. The crew of six, including a very good Matthew Mucha (CFRT’s Memphis)-an understudy for the absent Danny Kornfeld (Barrington’s Fiddler on the Roof) who usually plays the parallel part of Rabbi, younger and sweetly entwined with the other five; Sean Bell (HBO’s “Succession”) as Bobby; Zal Owen (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit) as Harry; Eric Peters (National tour: Motown the Musical) as Erich; Blake Roman (Paramount+’s “Blue Bloods”) as Chopin; and Steven Telsey (National tour: The Book of Mormon) as Lesh; come together neatly. They all fit into nicely categorized stereotypes that sing, make scene jokes, and travel the world entertaining their audiences with an ever-increasing amount of success, all under the watchful, but pseudo-approving eyes of the Nazis.
The six singers, all delicious and delightful to watch, deliver the goods solidly, even with songs that aren’t exactly memorable. But they sure look and sound good (and sometimes even great). No wonder they are seen as good public relations personas to the world, especially with their diversity, but as an audience member who knows what’s coming, it doesn’t sit so easily in the pit of our stomachs. The Nazis, as embodied by Andrew O’Shanick (“Pitch Perfect“) as Standartenführer – who claims to be a fan – don’t even seem to mind that a number of the group members, but not all, are in fact Jewish. This comes as a surprise, as most Jews and their equivalents were being robbed of their livelihood, their money, and their passports. But not these boys. Even when they push the boundaries of their PR protections outside of Germany, nothing happens, at least not right away.
The drama of the musical’s story is played out with conviction on a straightforward uncomplicated set by scenic designer Beowulf Boritt (Broadway’s New York, New York), with formula costuming by Linda Cho (Broadway’s Take Me Out) and Ricky Lurie (Gallery Players’ Godspell), inventive lighting by Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer (Broadway’s Gary), and a solid sound design by Dan Moses Schreier (Roundabout’s Trouble In Mind). It charges forward, but oddly, doesn’t hold us emotionally tight in its arms, running too long, and feeling soft-focused and sometimes generic in tone and form.
Can’t Wait For Boop To Come To Broadway
At the CIBC Theatre in Chicago, BOOP! The Musical, the new Broadway-bound musical extravaganza is making its debut . Actress Jasmine Amy Rogers is currently bringing her to life in Chicago, as she proves in this exciting song “Where I Wanna Be”.
The show is created by Tony Award®–winning director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray) who brings the Queen of the Animated Screen to the theater with celebrated multiple-time Grammy®-winning composer David Foster (“I Have Nothing,” “After the Love Is Gone,” “The Prayer”), Tony-nominated lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Working, Jelly’s Last Jam), and Tony-winning bookwriter Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, The Prom).
I am obsessed with the songs already. First was “Something To Shout About” and now “Where I Wanna Be”.
For almost a century, Betty Boop has won hearts and inspired fans around the world with her trademark looks, voice, and style. Now, in BOOP!, Betty’s dream of an ordinary day off from the super-celebrity in her black-and-white world leads to an extraordinary adventure of color, music, and love in New York City—one that reminds her and the world, “You are capable of amazing things.” Boop-oop-a-doop!
Ken Fallin’s Broadway: Michael Urie and Ethan Slater
With the holidays, my caricature of Spamalot is taking time, so I decided to highlight the two performers who for me stood out.
I have drawn Michael Urie several times, but I love this picture with him and my drawing of him in Buyer and Seller. Urie as Sir Robin, shows a new side of him that is truly funny.
Ethan Slater should have won a Tony for Sponge Bob Square Pants. My guess is he will be nominated again for his multiple roles in Spamalot.
Up next my caricature of Spamalot
Spamalot Gives Them The Olde Razzle Dazzle
Somehow I missed the original Monty Python’s Spamalot, based on the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” that played 18 years ago. So seeing this production at the St. James Theatre was fresh for me.
This show which runs over 2 1/2 hours is jammed packed with frat boy jokes, an uber talented cast and lots of razzle dazzle by director/ choreographer Josh Rhodes.
Satirizing the Arthurian legend, written by Eric Idle with music and lyrics by Idle and John Du Prez. The plot follows King Arthur (James Monroe Iglehart), as he is searching the kingdom for his Knights of the Round Table with his trusty sidekick Patsy (Christopher Fitzgerald). This is much like Don Quixote and Sancho, without those glorious songs. Instead we get “Look On The Bright Side Of Life.”
Arthur recruits Sir Bedevere the Wise (Jimmy Smagula), Sir Lancelot the handsome and incredibly violent (Taran Killam), Sir Galahad the Pure (Nik Walker) and Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave (Michael Urie). Arthur leads the knights to Camelot, but, after a Las Vegas Style review, he changes his mind, deeming it “a silly,” and they go off to find the Holy Grail.
In the meantime the Lady of the Lake (Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer) is rather peeved that her role has been cut. Kritzer tears down the house and the scenery with her vocal pyrotechnics and her attitude. She almost steals the show.
Ethan Slater plays the historian, not dead Fred, a baby, a nun, a mine and a minstrel, as well as wimpy Prince Herbert, and a demonic killer bunny. To each of these roles, he is like a chameleon and morphs into a comedic clown. He is truly funny.
Michael Urie, as Sir Robin, is hilarious and has the politically incorrect number “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway,” (if you don’t have any Jews). I am seriously surprised it has not been pulled considering parodies seem to be no longer appropriate.
Paul Tate dePoo III’s set is serviceable, but the projections are fabulous.
Many will like this show and if I had watched their performance on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, I too would be buying tickets.
Monty Python’s Spamalot: St. James Theatre, 246 W 44th Street.
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