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?
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, a new musical by Hannah Moscovitch and Ben Caplan from Canada’s 2b Theatre Company, is the story of two Jewish refugees fleeing Romania in 1908. Chaim and Chaya Moscovitch meet in an immigration holding facility in Halifax, Canada. Chaim is 19, hardworking, gentle, and eager to start anew—his entire family has been killed in a pogrom. He is also ready to fall in love. Chaya is 24, practical and hard-nosed. She lost the husband of her youth, Yochai, to typhus and, soon after, their child as well.
It’s almost quaint to remember the pearl-clutching inspired by The Jerry Springer Show in its late-1990s heyday. The daytime tabloid presented America as a bottomless basket of deplorables, with any number of people willing to air their dirty laundry in public for a chance to be on TV. Though our current political circus offers more than enough trashy tragicomedy, the still-running Jerry Springer Show once claimed the corner on tacky, made-in-America escapism.
Decades after his death, Robert Moses’s legacy is still felt throughout New York City, from the Triborough Bridge to Lincoln Center. As the urban planner responsible for much of the city’s 20th-century roadways and infrastructure projects, Moses had a polarizing career, making lasting improvements to the city and the surrounding area even as he was criticized for imposing his plans, no matter the consequences. New Yorkers traveling through Moses’s former domain to the Theatre at St. Clements, however, will find little unique insight into the man behind the infrastructure at Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses, a bio-musical of the master builder who outlasted mayors and governors to impose his will on New York City and the surrounding area from the 1920s through the 1960s.
Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk are the Rihanna of musical theater. Just as the Barbadian pop goddess releases hit song after hit song while selling relatively few albums, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk are less known for their plays than for their individual tunes, which have gained them a rabid online following. Their contemporaries Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land) have conquered Broadway and Hollywood, but Kerrigan and Lowdermilk have connected with the millennial fan base like no other musical theater writers; they’re the official composers of the Internet. Now, several of their conversationally catchy pop songs have found their way into the long-gestating original musical The Mad Ones, playing at 59E59 Theaters.
Young Frankenstein, a revised version of Mel Brooks’s 2007 Broadway musical parody, is winning accolades over in London, but Eric B. Sirota’s version of the Frankenstein story, receiving its world premiere on a budget a hundredth of the size, is surely much more faithful to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. Sirota, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for Frankenstein, imbues his show with the serious philosophical underpinnings of Shelley’s original: the dangers of man playing God, the belief in a higher power, the pitfalls that science may hold for overweening practitioners. But even with capable performers, the more adult approach comes up short.
The Flea, an estimable downtown theater company with an irritating name, prides itself on having conjured “joyful hell in a small space” for the past 20 years. Now starting its third decade, the organization has moved to a handsomely renovated building it owns on nearby Thomas Street. The official inaugural presentation in its new home is Syncing Ink by NSangou Njikam.
Shakespeare is getting a Wild West twist this fall with Desperate Measures at the York Theatre Company. The new musical transports Measure for Measure to the American frontier in a high-energy adaptation by Peter Kellogg and David Friedman that charms and entertains.
Ars Nova’s KPOP begins with a chorus of glittering young Korean pop performers belting the lyrics “the future’s standing right in front of you.” Indeed, the purported mission of the play’s fictional management enterprise, JTM Entertainment, is to bring K-Pop to American audiences, and the production delivers K-Pop-styled numbers in droves.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost, Boomerang Theatre Company’s Loveless Texas is a toe-tapping musical comedy set during the early years of the Great Depression. Although many of the characters hold the same names as in the Shakespeare play, the story begins with a twist: Berowne Loveless Navarre (the hugely talented Joe Joseph) and his buddies—Duke Dumaine (Colin Barkell) and Bubba Longaville (Brett Benowitz)—are playboys who travel from New York to Paris. Along the way they do all the things that upstanding young men shouldn’t be doing: chase women, drink liquor and spend the Navarre family money.
Whether one considers Van Gogh’s Ear a mixed-media presentation, or, in the parlance of millennials, a mash-up, the production directed by Donald T. Sanders for The Ensemble for the Romantic Century abounds in pleasures, from its stately pace, to the extraordinary musicianship that suffuses it, to the revelations about a painter whose work is well-known, but whose personality less so.
The advertising campaign for Come Light My Cigarette promises a “suspenseful” evening and features a photo of Erikka Walsh gotten up in Sam Spade trench coat and fedora. Indeed, there’s mystery about this mildly noir-ish musical, written and directed by Arnold L. Cohen; but what’s offstage is more provocative than what’s visible in the auditorium of the Theatre at St. Clement’s.
The musical Lili Marlene takes its name from the famous German love song of World War II, first recorded in 1939. It became a hit among German troops (in spite of Joseph Goebbels’s dislike of it) and was eventually popularized among Allied troops as well, in a famous rendition by Marlene Dietrich in 1944. Yet that’s only an imaginative jumping-off point for the show of the title, which takes place between June 1932 and June 1933, at the tail end of the Weimar Republic and the first days with Adolf Hitler in power.
First, we love Nancy Opel. The frisky singing comedienne all but stole Honeymoon in Vegas from Rob McClure, which can’t have been easy. Her Yente considerably enlivened the goyische Alfred Molina revival of Fiddler on the Roof, and her Dickensian Penelope Pennywise was one of the few enjoyable things about Urinetown. She surely deserves a musical of her own. And she deserves a better one than Curvy Widow.
This is the guy who wrote Anna Karenina? Librettist-lyricist Peter Kellogg, perhaps less than happy with the memories of that short-lived 1992 Broadway musical, has turned about as far away from tragic romance as it is possible to turn for his new project. Picture this: a small, whimsical Off-Broadway musical—a book show, but with a loose narrative allowing for plenty of sketchlike comedy, and with a structure borrowed freely from Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. A little social comment, but broad characters and an overriding silliness that induces, if not a lot of guffaws, a fair number of smiles. Music by David Friedman, best known for the great cabaret song “My Simple Christmas Wish” and several syrupy ballads that were gracefully sung by the late Nancy Lamott. Hence, Money Talks.
Most people going to the cell’s production of Bastard Jones have probably not encountered Henry Fielding’s hefty 18th-century novel. The odds may be greater that they’ve seen the Oscar-winning Tom Jones, a rare Best Picture comedy, but it rarely hits revival houses. That may be to the good, because Marc Acito and Amy Engelhardt’s new musical takes liberties—a lot of them—and fans of the film, scripted by John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), will find much has changed.
Attack of the Elvis Impersonators, at the Lion, has no subtitle, so here’s a helpful suggestion: The Attention Deficit Disorder Musical. Lory Lazarus, who perpetrated book, music, and lyrics, just staggers from premise to premise, seizing on some new plot point and leaving whole subplots behind to die of malnutrition. Some of them contain good ideas. More don’t.
At the center of Kirsten Childs’ new musical, Bella: An American Tall Tale, is the title character, “a big-booty Tupelo gal.” Although the “tall tale” labeling promises lightheartedness, there isn’t any blue ox or apple-seed scattering to be found. Childs’ formula for a tall tale includes some dark material, and the tone of Bella veers from cheerfully tongue-in-cheek to just plain vulgar, from wildly inventive to hackneyed.