Walter Kerr’s New York Times review of the original production of Little Shop of Horrors in 1982 started with a bloviating discourse on special effects’ ruination of good theater and its threat to the jobs of live actors. Then he added: “[T]he lyrics aren’t really witty enough to keep us eagerly attentive while the Equity membership is disappearing.” In our post–King Kong world, though, time has had its revenge. His clueless review is now an embarrassing read, while Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s creation has an unassailable stature.
The decision to avoid going into the family business can be a wise one, especially if that business involves the questionable practice of psychic healing. However, if that choice also means surrendering not only the family name, but one’s entire identity, then scamming the sick and elderly might seem to hold merit. Such is a young man’s quandary in Felix Starro, the sincere and split-focus new musical by Jessica Hagedorn and Fabian Obispo that opens the Ma-Yi Theater Company’s 30th anniversary season. Under the direction of Ralph B. Peña, this nearly two-hour dive into the meaning of faith is the first musical created by Filipino Americans to appear Off-Broadway.
The award-winning Forbidden Broadway will return to New York after a five-year absence. Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation will appear for a 10-week run at the Triad Theater (158 West 72nd St.) beginning Sept. 18 and run through Nov. 30. Opening night is Oct. 16. Gerard Alessandrini’s continuing series of Forbidden Broadway entries has been spoofing theater seasons since 1982; it has won seven Drama Desk awards and a special Tony Award since its inception. The new edition will castigate Hadestown, Moulin Rouge, the recent Oklahoma! revival, The Ferryman, Tootsie, Beetlejuice, Frozen, the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof, Dear Evan Hansen, and What the Constitution Means to Me, along with stars such as Ben Platt, Billy Porter, Santino Fontana, Karen Olivo, and Alex Brightman. For more information, visit www.forbiddenbroadway.com.
Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell: The Musical is a high-octane show that has a way of staying with you long after the curtain closes. The songs are taken from Meatloaf’s 1977 debut album, Bat Out of Hell, which provided a narrative about love and teenage angst for a generation of rock-and-roll fans. Director Jay Scheib, best-known for contemporary stagings of classical and contemporary works, has combined straightforward musical theater elements with avant-garde practices (such as a handheld camera that isolates and projects the faces of the characters in situ). The overall affect is of a raucous rock musical that captures the spirit of a concept album.
If ever a show were able to make the word eclectic seem insufficient, and excess seem wan, Austin McCormick’s Queen of Hearts is it. Retelling the story of Lewis Carroll’s Alice for his Company XIV, McCormick primarily uses Alice in Wonderland but borrows characters from Through the Looking-Glass. That slight mashup aesthetic is more pronounced, though, in the show itself, which is an amalgam of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, The Rocky Horror Show, Cirque du Soleil, and Minsky’s. It’s a wildly exuberant ride, but it helps if you are familiar with the original, since there’s no dialogue.
Dog Man the Musical is a children’s show based on the bestselling books by Dav Pilkey, whose Dog Man series has sold more than 23 million copies. Dog Man the book has translations available in 30 languages, and the musical, with book and lyrics by Kevin Del Aguila and music by Brad Alexander, is faithful to the books. It focuses on the same witty protagonists, Harold (Dan Rosales) and George (Forest Vandyke), who are now now in the fifth grade at Jerome Horwitz Elementary and “way more mature and cultured.”
Harlem Repertory’s The Wizard of Oz is a theatrical romp accompanied by a lively jazz trio. Directed and choreographed by Keith Lee Grant, themes of self-discovery, connection to family and facing one’s fears are well tackled and performed by a wonderful multicultural cast. They bring to life the events that propel the Kansas schoolgirl, Dorothy, on a magical mystery tour as she follows the yellow brick road.
Rita Rudner is not quite a household name, but when she shows up in Two’s a Crowd, the new little musical for which she cowrote the book with her husband, Martin Bergman, and in which she stars, she commands entrance applause. If you don’t know who she is, here’s the scoop: The comedienne first showed up on 1980s late-night talk shows, usually Letterman or Johnny Carson, selling the persona of the modern, put-upon woman—frustrated with technology, female powerlessness, and men. She had a good run with it, wrote some books, and moved from network TV mostly to Las Vegas, where she has been steadily performing for almost two decades.
Just in time for World Pride celebrations comes Camp Morning Wood, a quirky new nudie musical full of bouncy tunes, cheeky good humor and glitter that gets everywhere. It stars an attractive cast getting into some pretty hairy situations in the woods. Following in the footsteps of revues like Oh, Calcutta! and Naked Boys Singing, Camp Morning Wood takes it up a notch by incorporating nudity into a real plot.
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.