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 fortune of so 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. Don’t look for cohesive musical storytelling here; The Apple Boys is more of a vaudeville, a vehicle for silliness, quick changes, and most of all, an optimistic spirit that’s noticeably scarce in 2018.
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. But even with its melancholy trappings, All Is Calm is a deeply moving and spiritually thrilling piece of theater.
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. Now, in The Hello Girls, the World War I musical at 59E59 Theaters, we get “protocol/go to call,” “Passaic/formulaic,” and “tough/bluff/enough,” and in the service of some pretty cohesive song ideas, too. Literacy’s back on the rise—hooray!
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. Happily, the show avoids the vulgarity of The Book of Mormon while smartly ribbing show-music aficionados and playing off several Merman hits from Cole Porter, Jule Styne and Irving Berlin.
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 score includes clever references, melodic and chromatic, to such past masters as Guthrie, Dylan, Cocker, Crosby, Stills, Nash and, especially, Young, without undercutting the originality of Butler’s musical sound. The play’s subtitle, however—and, most notably, that word concert—is decidedly misleading.
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 that elevate his consciousness, if not his likability. Yes, Henry is a bit of a jerk and kind of a mope. But thankfully, the ladies in his orbit, most of whom are portrayed by Allie Trimm in a whirlwind of costume changes and delightful vocals, provide spark, pathos and a more entertaining story. The greatest strength of The Evolution of Mann is the revolution of its women.
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.