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.
It’s easy to imagine what drew composer Tim Rosser and lyricist/librettist Charlie Sohne to bacha bazi, the subject matter behind their new musical, The Boy Who Danced on Air. The lives of Afghani “dancing boys,” poor young men conscripted by the wealthy into sexual slavery, offer high-stakes drama and political topicality. Though spirited and nuanced, though, the play lacks the caution, finesse, and heterogeneity necessary to avoid joining the ranks of American musicals that have tried to absorb non-Western cultures, only to abuse and debase them (which is pretty much all of them).
Leaving no explorer-themed cliché unturned, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me boldly goes where many, many musicals have gone before, weaving a story of ersatz empowerment out of artistic crisis. The show, which encumbers a pair of insanely talented performers with thankless roles at the center of a human cartoon, patronizes and demeans its audience in its eagerness to be idiosyncratic.
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.”
A night at the newest production of Baghdaddy might begin with a cup of coffee, a doughnut, and a name tag. From the start, the audience is thrown right into the midst of Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo’s punchy political musical. Actors sit in the audience, and audience members sit on the stage as the show begins with a support group for the CIA operatives and others who played a role in starting the war in Iraq.
Poor, put-upon Percy Jackson. All he wants is to stay at the same school for more than a year. And have more than one friend. And not get in trouble all the time. And not have attention deficit disorder. Or such a rude, acrid stepdad. And if only that minotaur hadn’t killed his mom…
The Ma-Yi Theater Company’s Peer Gynt and the Norwegian Hapa Band offers a sonic interpretation of Henrik Ibsen’s saga Peer Gynt. Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt in 1867 as a dramatic poem, and it was staged a decade later with music by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg that has become famous. The play touches upon Norwegian mythology and folk tales, and it captures the hard and difficult times of mid-19th-century life in Scandinavia.
Made in China is a decidedly adult musical from Wakka Wakka, a New York–based theater company that prides itself on challenging “the boundaries of the imagination” with “bold, unique, and unpredictable” entertainments. This visually engaging production is performed by a host of black-veiled puppeteers manipulating intricately crafted bunraku-style puppets designed by Kirjan Waage. The script, by Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock (“with help from the Made in China Ensemble”), pushes the boundaries of puppet earthiness with a vengeance—it features puppet nudity, a puppet performing ordinarily private bodily functions, puppet copulation (both human and canine), and a puppet-dragon that has a mind-blowing digestive system.
One way in which musical theater rises above and beyond straight drama in its delivery is that song is like a shortcut, overtaking the spoken word, when reaching out and touching its audience. Fans will be pleased to know that I Like It Like That is a new musical that really delivers.
He was a jack of all trades artistic and master of them all. Trendsetter and admired cultural icon, Noel Coward was a British actor, playwright, dancer, composer and lyricist of songs, musicals and operettas, screenwriter and director, painter, novelist, and diarist, whose style, rapier wit, and intellect dominated the worlds of British theater and entertainment throughout the 1930’s, ’40s, and ’50s. Coward is the larger-than-life subject of Simon Green and David Shrubsole’s intimate evening Life Is for Living: Conversations with Coward at 59E59 Theaters. The presentation, the newest in a series of this British team’s collaborations devoted to Coward, uses Coward’s songs with excerpts from his diaries, verse, and letters, to offer us a glimpse into the breadth, artistry, life, and wit of the Master.
As one of Shakespeare’s most famed tragedies, Othello has seen quite a number of adaptations over the years. The artistic duo Q Brothers take their stab at adapting this timeless play with Othello: The Remix, which discards Shakespeare’s original iambic pentameter in favor of modern rhyme set to rap music. In the spirit of Hamilton and other sung-through and hip-hop-infused musicals, Othello: The Remix is 80 minutes of fast-paced lyricism—spun live by cast member DJ Supernova and with hardly a breath in between. While there are a few questionable production choices, the massive amount of creative energy and impressive talent on display in Othello: The Remix make it hard to resist.
The musical Sweet Charity has good bloodlines—book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, original direction and choreography by Bob Fosse—yet the 1966 show has never occupied the top tier of musicals, such as My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof or Gypsy. It has hardly languished in obscurity—there was a decent Broadway revival in 2005—but the New Group production directed by Leigh Silverman is such a persuasive delight that you may come away thinking it is top-tier after all. The production benefits from a terrific performance by Sutton Foster, a two-time Tony winner (and star of TV Land channel’s popular series Younger) in the title role. Foster is better known for big-budget Broadway shows such as Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes, but it’s a thrill to see her work magic in close quarters.
Every now and then a theatrical experience comes around that breaks the mold. It’s no simple task to categorize Gideon Irving’s performance piece running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Part musical, part stand-up comedy, (very small) part magic act, and part intriguing night in a complete stranger’s living room, My Name Is Gideon: I’m Probably Going to Die, Eventually is far from a one-trick pony. On the contrary, the hour-and-45-minute show is constantly surprising audience members with laughs, gasps, songs and even snacks!
For the late Rent composer Jonathan Larson, the “tick, tick, boom” in his head were the sounds signaling the passage of time as he matured and yet struggled to achieve success in the theater. Although Tick, Tick… BOOM! was originally written as a highly autobiographical solo piece, it was reworked after Larson’s death and the success of Rent to include two more characters, a girlfriend and a roommate. Fans of his 1996 hit rock musical are likely to thoroughly enjoy the Keen Company production of Tick, Tick… BOOM!
Perhaps it was inevitable that Gerard Alessandrini, the creator of many seasons of Forbidden Broadway, would be lured back by the possibilities of the phenomenon of Hamilton. Having put the long-running satirical revue on hiatus in 2014 (after Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging), Alessandrini has devised a terrific new show, Spamilton, at the Triad. Structured around Lin-Manuel Miranda’s runaway hit, the show features a stronger through-line than Alessandrini usually fashions to encompass the revue elements. For lovers of musical theater, Forbidden Broadway, and Hamilton, Spamilton provides a raucous goulash of mostly on-target barbs, yet it is also in the Forbidden Broadway mold, with “appearances” by stars such as Bernadette Peters, J. Lo, Beyoncé, and, inevitably, Liza Minnelli. Most important, fans can rejoice that Alessandrini is back at the top of his game. And the targets are not just Hamilton the musical, but the art form itself, the actors in Hamilton, and anything currently on Broadway.
The revue, written and directed by Alessandrini, takes the form of a fantasia. Inspired by the Kennedys and their love of the musical, Camelot, which Jackie said she played each night at bedtime, he imagines the Obamas turning in, with the President (Chris Anthony Giles) putting on a vinyl of Hamilton. Then Alessandrini lets loose. Part biography, part parody, the show details Miranda’s upbringing, his love of musicals, and his determination to build a better Broadway musical, in a clever rap that upends the expectation of traditionalism from him:
This blue collar shining beacon/Puerto Rican/Got a lot farther/By being a lot smarter/By stretching rhymes harder/By being a trend-starter.
Lurking beneath the flattery of “trend-starter,” though, is Alessandrini’s deep skepticism about rap as a medium for shows. Later in the revue, to the tune of “Children Will Listen,” from Into the Woods, he writes:
"Careful the rap you play/No one will listen/Careful how dense the phrase/ People will leave/Or heave."
“Children like rap today/But children don’t listen/Parents may lavish praise/But they could deceive/So take it from me/Careful the rap you say/ Incessantly/No one will listen."
Yet the canny creator also realizes that Miranda didn’t come out of nowhere. He has been influenced by Sondheim, whose genius has spawned inferior work from countless lesser talents. To the music of “Another Hundred People,” from Company, Sondheim gets his share of blame:
“Another hundred syllables came out of my mouth/And fell onto the ground/While another hundred syllables are gonna go south/And are sticking around/As another hundred syllables repeat the refrain/And are waiting for us/In the second quatrain/And I’m starting to cuss/Ev’ry word I say.”
“It’s a lyric by Sondheim/All you can eat word buffet/A lyric by Sondheim/ Too hard to sing, or to play/And ev’ry day/Some say, ‘No way…’”
Nora Schell, a powerhouse singer, delivers the Sondheim parody with panache, and she plays Michelle Obama and most of the other women’s roles. Gina Kreiezmar appears as a guest diva to play a beggar woman trying to cadge tickets to Hamilton, to the tune of the Beggar Woman’s “No Place Like London” in Sweeney Todd, and as Liza Minnelli she sings, to the tune of “Down With Love,” “Down With Rap”: “Down with rap and all of the hip-hop trends/Down with rap and all of the rhymes it bends.”
Aficionados will have fun identifying the melodies and references, which include Camelot, of course, but also The Unsinkable Molly Brown, The Music Man, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and non-theater music such as the theme from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And, thanks to Miranda’s good nature, Alessandrini has permission to use music from Hamilton itself, which he does effectively—skewering Barbra Streisand in all her narcissism and her Revolutionary garb at the Tony Awards, singing, to the music of Miranda’s big show-stopper, “I wanna be in the film when it happens, the film when it happens…”
Occasionally, Alessandrini’s swift segues may leave one confused, particularly at the appearance of an old man who missed something because he went to the bathroom. But Spamilton thrives on the energy of its cast of talented unknowns, who include Nicholas Edwards as a prancing Daveed Diggs in a volcanic wig (Diggs the actor is satirized in the number “Fresh Prince of Big Hair”) and Juwan Crawley, whose appearance in Dustin Cross’s costumes (as the genie in Aladdin and as a rather famous orphan) are the juiciest sight gags of the evening.
Whether or not you view Spamilton as a stopgap till you can score tickets to Hamilton, or as a exemplar of sharp-witted parody, Alessandrini’s show is chock-full of pleasures.
Spamilton plays through Dec. 31 at The Triad Theater. Tickets at $69 are selling quickly but are available for the popular show beginning Oct. 5. There is a two-drink minimum and cabaret seating. Performance times vary; for information and tickets, visit triadnyc.com.
Serious pianists love to study the great composers in order to explore and channel the music they are to perform. Hershey Felder, the writer and star of the solo show Maestro, is a serious pianist and composer in his own right. He is also a gifted and highly successful singer, director, and producer. His one-man show is the natural rumination of one serious musician about another.
Maestro is the story of the larger-than-life phenomenon that was Leonard Bernstein: conductor of the celebrated New York Philharmonic and orchestras worldwide; the second most performed classical composer in the United States, who also wrote the scores for the hit West Side Story and other Broadway shows; the creator of 53 Young People’s Concerts and proselytizer on behalf of the classical music tradition to the millions he reached on TV and in lectures all over the world. In this and other plays, Felder has created a piece of biographical theater. His one-man plays about Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt, Irving Berlin, and now Bernstein, use story, song, and music to probe the lives of great musicians and deepen our understanding of music itself.
Bernstein’s overarching passion was to compose. In Lenny’s voice, Felder explains what lies behind the works he composes: “and in every one of these pieces, I am busy looking for God. And for love. Because as composers, that’s what we’re always doing.” This desire, the desire to compose and all it encompasses, is the spine of Felder’s play. Will Bernstein find God? Will he find love? Will he write the great works he so badly wants to write?
Felder takes on Lenny, the controversies about his life and his music, and looks for the truth behind the noise of his fame. He shows us a man whose betrayal of his marriage and loss of his wife to cancer upended his life. And he shows us a man who, for all of his achievements as a composer, was never embraced by the classical composing establishment, which rigidly favored atonalism. Bernstein not only believed that tonality and melody were at the heart of all great classical music, he wrote successful musicals; brought classical impulses into his popular music; brought popular idioms into his serious classical compositions; and was just too populist in every way to win the seal of approval of that elite club whose tenets he rejected. He paid a heavy price.
Beautifully directed by Joel Zwick, the work uses projection and lighting (Christopher Ashe) as well as audio (Eric Carstensen) in striking, even brilliant ways. Does Felder do justice to Bernstein? Do we know the man more deeply after the play than we did before? These are questions that theatergoers will answer for themselves. But in bringing us a character whose passion and achievements were in music, Felder’s own musicianship, his teaching moments riffing on music that occur throughout the play, and his prowess at the keyboard, bring us more deeply into the soul of Bernstein than this genre might have otherwise permitted.
A solo show is a special feat for any actor. Maestro runs one hour and 45 minutes and includes challenging work at the keyboard, some of it while also singing or speaking. At the same time, is it mean-spirited to say there is a bit too much West Side Story and that, if the final song were cut, the play would end on the more tragic note intended by Felder, without sentimentality? Interestingly, as a baritone, Felder sings in a soft and lilting popular style and also in a steelier, more trained classical style, sometimes combining both, just as Bernstein was forever migrating from one style to the next in unexpected ways. Vocally this usually works—but not always.
Did Bernstein find God and love in his composing and in his life? In the most powerful moment at the end of the play—better experienced than described here—Bernstein combatively turns and asks questions of the audience. Then he recites a poem Bernstein wrote in which he sums up how he views his life in the face of his approaching death. Did Bernstein find God and love in his composing? No, Felder says, not in Bernstein’s eyes. And yes, Felder says, in the eyes and hearts of all of us who listen to his story and, even more important, to the maverick genius and passionate heart of the music that beats beneath it.
Maestro runs through Oct. 23 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tues.–Thurs. and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. (Additional performances are at 2 p.m. Sept. 29 and Oct. 13. There are no performances on Sept. 24 or Oct. 11 or at 7 p.m. Oct. 2.) Tickets are $25–$70. For more information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.
Liberty: A Monumental New Musical captures an America not unlike the one we see today: a place where people want to come, but also where many struggle to find work and build a simple but stable life. The story begins when Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, a French artist, lovingly completes his statue and sends her to the United States (it's a gift from France to commemorate a century of independence), as if she were his own child. Liberty (played by teenage actress Abigail Shapiro) comes looking for a pedestal on which she can stand to spread her message of hope and freedom.
However, when she arrives at Ellis Island, she is given the same treatment as every other immigrant. She is poked and prodded, and given the twice-over; only to be rejected—after all, what is her purpose here anyway? Hope? That’s not enough. Commissioner Francis A. Walker, who was responsible for the census in the mid-1800s (played with a debonair charm by Brandon Andrus), schedules her to return to France on the next boat. Liberty perseveres. After all, hope is not only for the immigrant, but for everyone seeking freedom and a better life.
The wonderful cast brings life to a variety of characters: an Italian immigrant (Nick Devito), an Irish foreman (Mark Aldrich, who also plays news mogul Joseph Pulitzer), a Russian knish seller (Tina Stafford, who moves gracefully between the Russian Olga, and a wealthy American heiress named Regina Schuyler), a former slave (C. Mingo Lingo), and a native American Indian (Ryan Duncan).
Liberty is a love song to New York—a city that embraces everyone, or at least tries to—but it’s also a history lesson. There’s a great deal of information about Emma Lazarus, played with tight-lipped determination by Emma Rosenthal, who is the most well-drawn character in the play, and the most interesting. She teaches English to Giovanni, an Italian immigrant who seems to hang around the port (is he being deported, or just a loafer?). His improved English increases his betting options: “Ten to one!” he says triumphantly and skitters off. Emma looks after him with a wry smile, clearly amused. This intrigue, however, is forbidden: Emma is from an affluent Jewish family that has been in America for four generations. Hanging around the port and new immigrants is not what a society girl is supposed to do, even if she is a poet, and Regina Schuyler, a wealthy woman who puts her money where it will give her the highest profile, makes sure Emma knows she’s being watched.
With book and lyrics by Dana Leslie Goldstein, there are some laughs along the way. Particularly funny are “The Charity Tango” sung by Liberty, Commissioner Walker and Schuyler, and “We Had It Worse” in which the Russian immigrant Olga and the Irish immigrant Patrick McKay compete to see who had it worse when they first arrived in America. However, as they crescendo in their comparisons, they also discover they agree on something when they sing: “Kids have no idea what hard work is” (…) “Soft” (…) “like a boiled cabbage,” and do a double-take in each other’s direction; they finish the song with a broad smile.
The production is fun, and kid-friendly, but very uneven. While the libretto is outstanding, the music by Jon Goldstein sounds canned; all the tracks seem to have been created on a synthesizer. The stage also feels small, not only because it is small, but because Evan Pappas's staging lacks dynamics and, at times, deflates the production. Some choreographed movement would have given the actors some breadth and depth and the production real musical-theater flair. Nonetheless, the cast clearly has their musical theater chops, and is led to a hopeful finale by Lady Liberty, who proves that perseverance pays off—a message we know is often true.
Liberty: A Monumental New Musical plays an open run at 42 West, 514 West 42nd St., between 10th and 11th avenues. Performances are Sundays at 2 and 5 p.m.; Mondays and Wednesdays at 3 and 7 p.m.; and Thursdays at noon and 3 p.m. Tickets are $72/$36 (premium/child premium); $63 (adult); $27 (children 4-12) and may be purchased by visiting LibertyTheMusical.com.