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.
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.
It’s surprising that Ah, Wilderness! doesn’t get done more often. Eugene O’Neill’s only full-length comedy—not, he later said, an autobiography, but a look back at the teen years he wished he’d had—the gentle two-acter is warmhearted, smart about intergenerational conflict, and extremely influential. It’s the template for every stage family comedy from You Can’t Take It With You to Morning’s at Seven and beyond, not to mention countless TV sitcoms, up to and including Modern Family. It rings with universal truths that are easy to identify with, and it’s not hard to stage.
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.
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 Network and To Kill a Mockingbird just around the corner, it seems like a good time to question the practice of putting classic movies onstage. Can the theater bring any added value to such highly regarded works? Certainly it can reshape them: Network, it seems, will come with a lot of multimedia doodads and whatever else director Ivo van Hove drags into it, and Mockingbird will feature adults in the kids’ roles. Whether those shows will equal the impact they had on the big screen remains to be seen. Meantime, downtown, Axis Company is also having a go at screen-to-stage, with its adaptation of High Noon.
It’s getting a little late in the day for a contemporary coming-out comedy. Isn’t that battle pretty much over, and aren’t plays like Gemini and Torch Song Trilogy period pieces by now? That said, David Adam Gill gets a fair amount of comic mileage out of Experimenting with Katz, his “new comedic play” about, shades of Albert Innaurato or Harvey Fierstein, Michael Katz (Paul Pakler), a youngish gay man with self-esteem issues, romantic issues, and severe mother issues. Gill hasn’t quite merged his characters and themes into a cohesive whole, and he needs to acquaint himself with the Delete key—Katz, small as it is, runs more than 2½ hours. But he knows how to make us laugh, and, a few contrivances notwithstanding, care a little, too.
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.
Popular culture lately seems overrun with talking animals. The funny-sad Netflix series BoJack Horseman stars a talking horse, backed by a talking dog, a talking cat, and a supporting talking menagerie. The movie Ted a few years back had Mark Wahlberg’s teddy bear coming to life. And let’s not even get started on Pixar.
It’s some feast that Terrence McNally has cooked up for Douglas Hodge, fulminating and relishing every minute as the tortured, torturing ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Fire and Air, a premiere at Classic Stage Company. McNally has always been fond of larger-than-life personalities gesticulating wildly and playing to the wings—think Master Class, The Lisbon Traviata, It’s Only a Play. He has often toiled in the opera realm, addicted to its outsize theatricality and the strong feelings its fans and its creators harbor. With Fire and Air he switches to ballet, specifically the Ballets Russes on the eve of revolution—an art where those qualities also abound. The author is 79, he has written plays for more than half a century, and Fire and Air is vintage McNally.
A pot of monkfish stew sits on the stove for most of Muswell Hill, Torben Betts’s barbed comedy—simmering, bubbling, issuing forth its varied flavors gradually and subtly. As does Muswell Hill. Set in 2010 in the titular leafy upscale London suburb—the equivalent of, say, Saddle River on this side of the pond—Betts’s work presents a troubled dinner party of mismatched individuals and couples, talking past and misunderstanding one another, drinking too much even though at least two begin as teetotalers, letting their libidos lead them to unwise decisions, and revealing personality traits simultaneously unexpected and inevitable. We’re in what seems familiar Alan Ayckbourn territory for much of it, then the hurts and regrets pile up, and the curtain falls on a very funny comedy that has also become a sad commentary on human foibles.
Curious title, Tomorrow in the Battle. It’s a phrase from Richard III (Act V, scene 3), the partial title of a well-reviewed 1994 novel by Spanish writer Javier Marías, and apparently the English translation of a German war cry. And what it has to do with what’s happening on Ars Nova’s stage, heaven knows. At any rate, to enjoy Kieron Barry’s drama, you’d better love London: there’s a lot of it here. And you’d better have a tolerance for shaky British accents. Patrick Hamilton, as our not-altogether-heroic hero, can’t decide whether to pronounce it “again” or “a gain”; he keeps going back and forth. And Ruth Sullivan and Allison Threadgold, as the women in his life, flatten or broaden their vowels as they see fit, not always consistently.
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.
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.
Zero’s back in town, and the town is jollier for it. That’s Zero as in Mostel, in the ursine form of Jim Brochu, who has brought his one-man biographical show, Zero Hour, back to the Theatre at St. Clement’s. It won him a Drama Desk Award back in 2010, and in this new incarnation, if anything, the author and star is more formidable, more unpredictable, more voluble—more Zero.
Marry Harry revives a genre not much seen in these parts lately, the charm musical. The work of Jennifer Robbins (book), Dan Martin (music), and Michael Biello (lyrics), the show is small and hasn’t much on its mind, just the urge to put a few likable characters through a simple story and send its audience out with a collective feeling of “Aww.” Thanks to an attractive production on the intimate York Theatre stage and an overqualified cast, it gets its “Aww,” though it also earns a couple of orders of “You can’t be serious.”
Remember the Dead End Kids? Possibly not, unless you’re a student of B-movie genres or a Turner Classic Movies junkie. But the kids, led by Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and Gabriel Dell, enjoyed a film career starting in the Depression—cracking wise, getting into scraps, peddling broad Noo Yawk accents, and challenging authority. The kids prospered at several studios, well into the 1950s and long past being kids. To many a moviegoer in flyover states, the Dead End Kids were New York.
Daniel’s Husband is one of those plays where, halfway through, something so unexpected, plot-altering, and tone-shifting happens that it just can’t be revealed. Michael McKeever’s comedy-drama about the still-new era of gay marriage is cleft in two—part one: comedy, part two: drama—and both halves are effective, if you’re willing to accept some questionable behavior on the part of the title character.