Eliza Lynch is Paraguay’s version of Eva Perón, Argentina’s famous class-climbing first lady. Madame Lynch, as she was known, was born in Ireland, emigrated with her family to France during the Irish Potato Famine (1845–49), and became a highly admired courtesan. In 1845 she met General Francisco Solano López Carrillo, who later became president of Paraguay, and she became the country’s most controversial de facto first lady. (The pair never married.) Once reviled by Paraguayans but now celebrated, the self-named “Empress of Paraguay” is the basis for the Drunkard’s Wife production of Madame Lynch, which is subtitled a “spectacle with music and dancing.”
When Enter Laughing: The Musical opened in fall 2008, the York Theatre Company struck gold in their excavation and refinement of a 1976 flop musical, So Long 174th Street. Using the title of the play by Joseph Stein and novel by Carl Reiner on which it is based, Enter Laughing was hailed by critics as a musical gem, prompting the New York Times critic to write, “All you can do is wonder, how did this thing fail so badly the first time around?”
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century puts together hybrids of theater, classical music—both vocal and instrumental—and readings of letters or diaries to create its productions. For Hans Christian Andersen, its latest offering, the group has increased the hybrid entertainment by adding puppetry for its story of the life of the great Danish fairy-tale writer: marionettes, hand puppets, and some that are much larger.
By the time of Oscar Hammerstein II’s death, in August of 1960, The Twilight Zone had completed its first season on CBS, and The Lawrence Welk Show was six seasons into its 16-year run on ABC. It’s worth noting this not because one of the theater’s greatest librettists was a known fan of either TV show, but because both programs may come jarringly to mind at Doreen Taylor’s Sincerely, Oscar, a combination memoir and homage that celebrates the talent, and apparent immortality, of the man whose timeless work ranges from “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” to “Some Enchanted Evening.”
You’ve probably heard the story, or maybe you saw the Tim Robbins movie. In 1937, the WPA shut down the Federal Theatre Project’s new “play in music” four days before opening, fearing that its radicalism and pro-union message were just too incendiary. John Houseman (producer), Orson Welles (director), and Marc Blitzstein (author) were determined to put it on somehow. On opening night, forbidden from using the designated theater and lacking an orchestra, they sent an actor out to find a piano. The audience was marched 21 blocks to another, vacant theater somebody else had found. Not allowed to appear onstage, the actors performed from the house, with Blitzstein, the only nonunion performer, playing the score from the stage. The effect was electrifying, and The Cradle Will Rock went on to find other backing and enjoy a successful, conventionally staged run.
Willy Holtzman calls his pocket-size play about Judy Holliday Smart Blonde. Not a bad title, considering Holliday’s reportedly high IQ and her early success, on stage and screen, as Billie Dawn, the seemingly dumb, actually discerning protagonist of Garson Kanin’s 1946 smash-hit comedy Born Yesterday.
Superheroes haven’t had an easy time of it in musicals. It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman opened in 1966 to critical praise but public indifference, and then there was that little show about Spider-Man some seasons back. Add to this unlucky list Superhero at Second Stage, which at least invents its own superheroes rather than sullying the reputations of beloved ones. Further, it’s beautifully produced, assembled by experienced hands (book, John Logan; music and lyrics, Tom Kitt), and possessing several good songs. The trouble is, Superhero isn’t so much written as programmed.
We Are the Tigers, which punningly describes itself as “a killer new musical,” is a whodunit that explores the trajectory of a group of teenage girls who couldn’t be more different. The girls are part of a cheerleading team called the Tigers, but are dogged by an epic stumble in the last game which went viral and left them the laughingstock of their high school community. This year, they’re determined to make a comeback. In the course of an evening, two cheerleaders are bumped off and another set up, but can the motive really be just to restore their reputation?
Unlike, say, a film such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Clueless has the rare good fortune of clearly representing its historical moment without coming off as a creaky relic. Writer/director Amy Heckerling set her 1995 film in a sort of alternate reality, where the fabulously rich teens of Beverly Hills (already its own parallel universe) reference Kenny G and Christian Slater while dropping hyper-intelligent aperçus disguised as Valley Girl slang. Light on its feet and funny as hell, Clueless was in the ’90s but not of the ’90s.
Like the despised fruitcake that is passed from one generation to the next in Gary Apple’s hard-to-digest musical, Christmas in Hell, the show itself is an amalgam of strange ingredients. Sometimes sincere, usually madcap, but hardly ever having to do with Christmas, it is the tale of an 8-year-old boy mistakenly sent to Hades and the father who has to drink some Clamato to get him back. With one song that rhymes “Jesus” with “Chuck E. Cheese’s,” and another composed almost entirely of variations of the F-word, some in the audience may find the show in bad taste. With references to Charles Manson and Leona Helmsley, others may simply find it stale.
Barbershop quartets? What most people know about them is probably limited to The Music Man. Still, they’re jovial company in The Apple Boys, a delightful little musical at the HERE Arts Center, even if they’re not entirely boys. Jack (Jelani Remy), Nathan (Teddy Yudain), Warren (Jonothon Lyons, who wrote the book), and Hank (Amanda Ryan Paige) are turn-of-the-20th-century Coney Islanders, and Jack also happens to be Johnny Appleseed’s grandson. It’s the first in a long line of whimsies, anachronisms, and out-and-out lies that fetchingly tie the loose plot together.
War, bloodshed, and a cappella music seem unlikely companions in a Christmas show, but All Is Calm is a holiday production without parallel. Subtitled The Christmas Truce of 1914, it revisits in letters and songs of the period a Christmas Eve in World War I when soldiers in the trenches suspended their enmity and joined one another for a night of celebration in no-man’s-land. The story has been told before, notably in Joyeux Noël, France’s 2005 Oscar nominee for best foreign film.
It’s been encouraging in the past couple of weeks to visit two new musicals and hear something that so many titles of the past several decades have lacked: real lyrics. That is, words that rhyme, are neat, and contain clever, succinct, and/or expressive ideas. The Prom gave us “dealt/belt,” “alone/Peron,” and “famous/ignoramus,” and all in just one song.
With a title like The Book of Merman, one might expect a big, brassy, loud and overbearing musical, but in fact the creators, Leo Schwartz, who wrote the score and DC Cathro, his co–book writer, have turned out a parody of show music that’s surprisingly unassuming and mild-mannered. One might easily guess there’ll be sparks that fly from just what the title implies: an unabashed mashup of The Book of Mormon and the style of Ethel Merman.
Two very different Nobel laureates haunt Conor McPherson’s The Girl from the North Country: Bob Dylan and Samuel Beckett. If Dylan’s music, which provides the emotional framework of this unorthodox jukebox musical, seems an odd fit for the Beckettian limbo in which McPherson has ensconced his characters, that’s just a testament to the worlds contained in Dylan’s songs.
As our country’s partisan roistering continues its crescendo, the adventurous Ars Nova is presenting a space-travel yarn, set 300 years from now, that speaks to the autocratic tendencies of the current regime in Washington, D.C. Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future, subtitled A Science-Fiction Folk-Concert Musical, features 15 numbers in a variety of styles composed by Andrew R. Butler.
The trials and tribulations of living in New York City are explored in Ordinary Days, a sweet and thoughtful musical exploring the alternating wonder and frustration of life in the Big Apple. Currently being presented by Keen Company at Theatre Row, Ordinary Days chronicles four New Yorkers in 2007 as they navigate their everyday lives while pondering their larger futures.
Despite the title, the lead character in The Evolution of Mann, a busy and lovelorn new musical from Douglas J. Cohen and Dan Elish, does not rise to a higher plane of existence. Rather than evolve, Henry Mann, played with his broken heart on his sleeve by Max Crumm, falls victim to his own choices as well as to the whims of those he matrimonially pursues. If, over the course of 90 minutes and a dozen songs, he ultimately finds a ray of hope, it is the females around him who elevate his consciousness, if not his likability.
The Broadway-bound Be More Chill is a Black Mirror–meets–Mean Girls musical with a cult following that has propelled it from its 2014 premiere at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., to an Off-Broadway run. The power of social media and an obsessive teenage fan base took this little-known show and made it the second most mentioned musical on Tumblr in 2017 (behind Hamilton).
Neurosis, a chamber musical in the small space at DR2, is full of small pleasures. It’s the kind of show that doesn’t “kill” but supplies grins and smiles generously. First, there’s the central conceit: a gangly would-be magician named Frank (Kevin Zak) is accompanied everywhere by his sidekick (Brennan Caldwell). Initially, as they brush their teeth together and advise each other on whether they’re presentable, one suspects the two are a gay couple. But Caldwell, it turns out, is the embodiment of Frank’s Neurosis. He nags at Frank and keeps him on edge, unsure of himself, as psychological afflictions can do.
Heist! is a funny, upbeat new showcase for highly talented musical theater artists. Directed by James Will McBride, the show concerns three bank robbers —Gil (Cordara Newson), Jack (Alec Irion) and Chris (James Cella)—and a job gone bad. Their robbery fails, and only Gil and Jack escape. Jack spirals downward at the news that Chris was killed by the police.
As audience members enter the Atlantic Stage 2, where the Potomac Theatre Project’s production of Brecht on Brecht is playing, they may be under the impression they have entered a quaint concert salon. There is a grand piano prominently positioned just off center stage, four music stands at the edge of the playing space, and the floor is covered with luxurious Oriental rugs. When the show begins, four ingratiating young performers carrying sheet music primly assume their positions behind the stands.
Was Daisy Gamble, the leading character of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, ever reincarnated as much as the Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane musical-comedy-operetta itself? In the show, about paranormal activity and past lives, Daisy’s seeming prior existence as a Regency beauty fascinates one Dr. Mark Bruckner, an analyst who believes in previous lives and ESP.
Oscar Hammerstein II’s adaptation of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen into a musical, Carmen Jones, is rarely staged, so the revival at Classic Stage Company production is a happy resurrection of his 1943 effort. Nonetheless, although it is gloriously sung, the 90-minute production doesn’t make a case that Hammerstein’s musical theater version is the equal of Bizet’s opera. It’s never going to be in the standard repertory.
Time has not been kind to Suzy Solidor, the Parisian nightclub sensation of the 1930s. Solidor earned a reputation as “the most-painted woman in the world,” and her image was captured by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, including Tamara de Lempicka, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, and dozens of others. Known primarily for her erotic songs about lesbian desire, Solidor is all but forgotten today, but the immensely gifted singer and actress Jessica Walker may just rescue her from the footnotes of entertainment history. Walker’s new work, All I Want Is One Night, which is part of the Brits Off Broadway series at 59E59 Theaters, offers compelling reason to become reacquainted (or, as the case may be, acquainted) with the cross-dressing French cabaret singer.
“Lonesome Blues,” a new musical at the York, is a historical dramatization of the life of Blind Lemon Jefferson through music. Jefferson was an itinerant Texas bluesman who was one of the first to be recorded by Paramount Records in the 1920s. He is said to have influenced everyone from Leadbelly to Bob Dylan to the Beatles. Jefferson went on to record 80 songs until his untimely death in his early 30s. He was found frozen near the river in Chicago. The blues, as does the play, tells the story of this rough life for African-Americans in America in the early 20th century. “Blues hits a nerve and that hurts” Jefferson declares.
Little Rock, Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj’s docudrama about the nine African American students who integrated a white high school in the Arkansas capital in 1957, seems especially relevant now. Near the end of the play, an actor assuming the persona of television news reporter Mike Wallace says, “It’s astonishing what the Nine from Little Rock have taught us as a people—that even children can, in a gentle way, shake the world for better.” It remains an important lesson today as schools face new and presumably insurmountable challenges. Indeed, as the inspirational and courageously outspoken Parkland, Fla., shooting survivors continue to demonstrate, adults can learn a great deal about social change and agitation from the youth.
The ranks of triple-threat musical theater writers—individuals responsible for book, music, and lyrics—are small. Michael John LaChiusa springs to mind, and Lionel Bart (Oliver!), Frank Loesser (The Most Happy Fella), and Sandy Wilson (The Boy Friend), but just try to think of others. Add to this exclusive club Francine Pellegrino, whose Molasses in January is premiering at the Theater Center. It’s an original book, based only on history—that of Boston’s molasses disaster of 1919, when a tank burst and sent syrup cascading through the streets, killing 21. Pellegrino is not overly experienced in any of these three skills, and she proves to be way better at one of them than the other two.
Like a comet in an irregular orbit, It Came From Beyond has returned to menace Manhattan, bearing down on Off-Broadway while emanating just enough charm and good will to keep from crashing. This sci-fi musical was spawned in 2005 at the New York Musical Festival, then rose again the next year in Los Angeles. Now, back for an oddball run of Tuesday-only performances, it turns out that, despite the threatening title, it has come in peace. And that’s the problem. Meant as an homage to the 1950s and as a parody of that era’s Cold War monster flicks (most obviously, It Came From Outer Space), playwright Cornell Christianson’s script is campy, but not sufficiently outrageous; other-worldly, but not scary. And opportunities to freshen the writing to reflect current political and societal upheaval have gone untaken.
Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked has played somewhere around 6,020 performances and counting, and last week the show cleared $2.7 million. The newly opened Frozen, despite some dreadful reviews, was at 99.9% capacity. And both musicals—Wicked since its 2003 opening, Frozen via the 2013 Disney animated smash that inspired it—are cultural phenomena, especially among musical-loving teenage girls who respond to the heroines’ frustrations, bonding with other young women (a sister, in Frozen’s case), and their eventual triumph over adversity. Both shows have earworm empowerment anthems that have saturated social media since their premieres, Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” and Frozen’s “Let It Go.” And both would seem ripe for spoofing, of the Forbidden Broadway sort. Who, except possibly their most die-hard fans, wouldn’t want to have a little fun at these monoliths’ expense?