The Maysles Brothers' 1975 documentary, about two nutty relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis living in East Hampton squalor, wouldn't seem like much to build a musical out of. But writer Doug Wright has done a shrewd expansion job. The first act, full of bright colors and bouncy 1930s-style tunes, imagines the mother and daughter in their earlier salad days. The second act condenses the cinema-v้rit้ longueurs of the film into a dark, funny and frightening portrait of two recluses who can't live with or without each other. All of which provides the role of a lifetime two of them, actually for its wondrous star Christine Ebersole.
Wendla is a teenager so sheltered that she finds herself pregnant before she even learns the facts of life; Melchior is a rebellious hunk whose radical ideas get him thrown into a reformatory; Moritz a geeky class loner driven to suicide. The names are foreign, the social milieu formalistic and remote. But when these kids drawn from German author Frank Wedekind's once-scandalous 1891 play grab microphones and unload their angst through Duncan Sheik's vibrant rock songs (with titles like
It took a long time for the Disney family favorite to jump from screen to stage, but it was worth the wait: this Broadway musical is a rare improvement on a classic. Several sprightly new songs have been stitched into to the familiar Sherman Brothers score with hardly a seam showing. Bob Crowley's meticulous sets and Matthew Bourne's inventive, high-flying choreography provide the required spectacle. But it's director Richard Eyre's sober treatment of the themes of childhood and adulthood that add the nutrition to the spoonfuls of sugar. Another slick Disney commercial hit? I say bravo.
A man who thinks he's seen the ghost of his dead wife goes to a shrink to talk about it. In a few scenes, over the next few weeks, the uncomfortable secrets of both are revealed. In a year when musicals dominated Broadway, Conor McPherson's Dublin-set ghost story was that rare treat: a pitch-perfect 90 minutes of tense psychological drama. Robert Falls's understated production, starring Oliver Platt and Brian F. O'Byrne, bided its time until a frisson at the end that makes my own Top 10 list of great Broadway moments.
365 Days/365 Plays
Adventurous playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Venus; Topdog/Underdog) had this crazy idea to write one play every day for an entire year. And starting in November, they are being produced (in various groupings and formats) by more than 600 theater companies around the country. The first batch, which I caught at New York's Public Theater, are slight things (no surprise), but what's important is the inspiring act of affirmation (by Parks and her producing partner Bonnie Metzger) in the power of theater as a national communal event. A year's worth of applause, please.
Musical Revivals (American style)
There were too many of them for Broadway's own good (even The Drowsy Chaperone, last spring's hot new show, revived a mythical old one), but let's remember two especially good ones. Bob Avian, who helped Michael Bennett mount the original production of A Chorus Line, oversaw a faithful remounting of the dance-ten classic and proved that it can still deliver the same kicks. And Kathleen Marshall mounted a stylish, cheery remake of The Pajama Game, with the help of two terrific stars: Harry Connick Jr., who made women swoon with his silky voice and rippling pecs, and Kelli O'Hara, who made me swoon with the warm, Mary Martin lilt of her soprano.
Musical Revivals (British style)
Brit director John Doyle has what might uncharitably be called a gimmick: he saves producers money on Sondheim revivals by having the cast double as the orchestra. But it works. Two of his shows, Sweeney Todd and Company came to Broadway this year, and they didn't merely prove that Patti LuPone can play the tuba and Raul Esparza may have a future as a cocktail pianist. They made two oft-revived shows seem brand new. If I give my vote to Company over the more highly praised Sweeney, it's because the device all those actors scattered about the mostly bare stage, nursing their flutes and trumpets seemed to perfectly echo Sondheim's theme of modern marrieds in a perpetual state of disconnection.
You just can't figure Broadway when it comes to the Brits. While the sentimental History Boys won almost unanimous cheers (and lots of Tony's) and Brian Friel's soporific The Faith Healer had the critics reaching for superlatives, this riveting family drama a big success in London left critics and audiences here cold. David Eldridge's play, based on the Danish film The Celebration, about a family reunion torn asunder by a son's revelation of sexual abuse, was as bleak as a Scandinavian winter, and just as bracing.
The Vertical Hour
David Hare's play about an American college professor who wrangles politically (and almost romantically) with the father of her British fianc้, may not be one of his very best. But how many other dramatists write plays that actually engage the public issues of the moment (in this case, the Iraq war); can give intellectual arguments such life onstage; believe so passionately that politics are an inextricable part of the larger human drama? Bill Nighy, as the unapologetic liberal, overshadows Julianne Moore, in her Broadway debut as the Bush-supporting professor, but not enough to disrupt the crisp clash of ideas.
Martin Short's Fame Becomes Me
The manic, elfin former SCTV and Saturday Night Live star offered up an autobiographical show that touched all the bases: his early, troubled family life; the slog from Broadway chorus to Oscar-winning superstar; the drug-fueled crash and inspirational comeback. The only thing he left out was the truth. Short's funny, frantic put-on proved once again that he's the most gifted Broadway star that Broadway could never find a proper place for. For a few months anyway (the show closes in January), he made one for himself.
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