El Niño Mellows the Great White Way: The Lullaby of Broadway

While Charlotte theatre companies generally go into hibernation during the last two weekends of the year, finishing off extended Yuletide runs rather than opening anything new, Broadway is invariably having their top two box office weeks. Families enjoying their winter vacations swell Times Square and the surrounding theatre district to such a degree that they’ve now taken a good chunk of it and repurposed it exclusively for pedestrian traffic, sightseeing, and – hooray! – pure loafing.

During the seven full weeks when our major local companies have no mainstage premieres, Blumenthal Performing Arts has jumped into the void, opening Kinky Boots, Wicked and The Hip Hop Nutcracker. It’s a great time to scoot off to the Big Apple without any great disloyalty to Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre or CPCC Theatre.

You should go. Some topnotch Broadway musicals, like The Light in the Piazza or the acclaimed revivals of Company and South Pacific, never reach us in touring versions. Have you ever seen a Sondheim musical tour Charlotte? Other shows, like Les Miz or Ragtime, only reach us when the bloom has long vanished from the rose.

Of course, there are still other shows, chiefly those built around a big-name box office draw, that are never intended for a second life on the road. Even the most acclaimed and influential off-Broadway show is no more likely to hit the road for a national tour than a show we see premiered at Actor’s Theatre or ImaginOn — unless it transfers to Broadway first.

Seeing an original Broadway production that does eventually hit Charlotte has its own rewards. You get the big names, the Tony winners and all the bells and whistles to gush about — first when you’ve see the show there and later when the tour arrives here without the same big names and big budgets. While you’ve already paid enough to reserve the privilege of nitpicking the tour, you can also quietly admire how well a truly fine piece holds up in the hinterlands without all the wowee-wow-wow technical blandishments or the megawatt glitz of a superstar lead. Cases in point: the touring versions of Wicked and The Producers.

We started going up to the Great White Way during the cusp of fall and winter many seasons ago while my wife, Sue, was still a special ed teacher taking her well-deserved holiday breaks. In recent years, hoping for smaller crowds and greater selection for our annual roundup of reviews, we’ve put off our pilgrimage till as late as February. But in 2015, after our family’s Thanksgiving revels in Baltimore, we kept heading northward, staying in New York past Chanukah.

We lucked out on both available shows and, thanks to the mellowing agent known as El Niño, the weather. Of the 15 shows we saw, seven were Broadway, four were off-Broadway, three were at the Metropolitan Opera and one was with the New York Philharmonic. Allowing for the more decadent New York state of mind, we can also claim to have seen two holiday shows. A first taste of what we saw appears here, with an ample overflow completing my roundup online:


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (**** out of 4) — An autistic 15-year-old English boy is propelled toward adulthood at heart-pounding speed when he’s seized by police for a grisly crime: murdering his neighbor’s dog with a pitchfork. Not having read the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, I can’t say which Tony Award winner is more brilliant, playwright Simon Stephens in his stage adaptation, or director Marianne Elliott (of well-deserved War Horse fame) with her high-concept production.

Like a hit TV procedural, the crime scene is right there in the middle of the stage as the action begins — and so are young Christopher Boone’s vulnerabilities as he grieves over the slain Wellington’s body. He thinks and understands things very literally, does not take easily to strangers, and plunges instantly into panic mode if he is touched. So the interview with the police bobby who arrives on the scene does not go well. But the twin traumas of the evening forge a resolve in Christopher that will painfully liberate him from some of his afflictions.

He will solve the mystery of who killed Wellington. It’s a project that’s encouraged by his special ed teacher Siobhan, who asks Christopher to keep a journal of his investigations. But Chris’s probe is discouraged, even forbidden, by his lunch-pail father Ed, a Billy Elliot-type dad, slow to grasp his own son’s unique gifts.

What will likely be surprising — and comforting — to those who haven’t read the book is that the solution of the mystery isn’t the end of the story. No, there is much more for Christopher to discover about his parents, the neighbors, and himself. The sum of it all is life-changing while that journal blossoms into the play we watch.

Except for the actress who portrays Chris’s mother, replaced by capable understudy Stephanie Roth Haberle on the night we attended, all the leads of the original September 2014 production have departed. It was hard for me to imagine that Tony winner Alex Sharpe was any more compelling — or moving — than Tyler Lea as Christopher, a performance that was free of the slightest taint of Dustin Hoffman. Rosie Benton is an empathetic teacher as Siobhan and a likably amazed narrator when she shares Chris’s journal. Andrew Long’s work as Ed is arguably the most profound, each new layer illuminating those we thought we knew.

Changing costumes and characters, the remaining ensemble swirls around Christopher as if he’s afloat in a dream. The entire grid-like set design by Bunny Christie, combined with Finn Ross’s video artistry, occasionally casts the action into an abstract realm akin to outer space. That galactic effect is especially telling when Christopher audaciously decides to travel on his own to London or when he speaks so eloquently about the stars. It even resonates when Chris plunges into the deep psychological chasm that yawns open when he discovers that his parents are not merely imperfect but deeply flawed.

Fun Home (***3/4) — Lisa Kron has turned Alison Bechdel’s gay autobiographical novel into an anguished-yet-luminous memory play worthy not only of a Tony Award for best musical but also a Pulitzer Prize nom for best drama. Kron’s alchemy with composer Jeanine Tesori is no less magical, yielding a score that tingles with natural monologues and dialogues and shimmers with soaring, sometimes jubilant melody. The twin poles of fascination here are Alison, played by three different actresses as she reaches her current age of 43, and her domineering, charismatic father.

Aside from being a closeted gay man, Bruce is an ardent, unforgettable English teacher at the local high school in rural Pennsylvania and the ultra-fastidious owner — and restorer — of Bechdel’s Funeral Home.

“Fun Home” is the slick nickname Alison and her two siblings come up with when they ponder how they might advertise the family biz on TV. The fun lasts well into Alison’s college years at Oberlin, where she discovers she is a lesbian and finds her first love. Bechdel’s novel cannot make lesbian love as wholesome, youthful, natural, and joyous as Emily Skeggs singing “I’m changing my major to sex with Joan.”

But the fun abruptly ends when Dad spirals downward and commits suicide. Alison is left to pick up the pieces, rummage through them for clues, and construct a narrative that makes sense of it all – frame by frame on her sketchpad. For that reason, Beth Malone, observing her younger selves pad-in-hand as our narrator, has a far less engaging role as fully-mature Alison than Skeggs has as Medium Alison. The tomboyish collegian awakens to her true sexuality through the ministrations of the smart, confidently seductive Joan, given a spot-on activist cool by Roberta Colindrez.

None of the Alisons, not even Gabriella Pizzolo as the adorable Small Alison, is nearly as compelling as Michael Cerveris as the enigmatic Bruce. That’s how it should be, because Bechdel’s novel concentrates on the many facets of her father from its opening panel. It’s a breathtaking range, including cruelty and perversion, and as commanding as I found Cerveris in 2010 as the sexist physician in Sarah Ruhl’s notorious Vibrator Play, he surpasses himself here: gentler and more human than the Bruce that Bechdel’s novel introduces us to, yet still as deeply self-loathing.

With Sam Gold’s stage direction, abetted by Ben Stanton’s lighting, I found myself well-acquainted with the Bechdel family after the 99 intermissionless minutes I spent with them, especially in the intimate confines of the Circle in the Square theater. My only quibble was with how much there was to absorb so quickly. For that reason, I’d recommend streaming the cast album after you’ve seen the musical. It not only gives you a second chance to savor Tesori’s tunes and Kron’s deft lyrics, it also preserves generous chunks of the spoken dialogue.

An American in Paris (***3/4) You may need to adore ballet and modern dance as much as I do to be fully swept away by director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s bold homage to the famed Gene Kelly-Leslie Caron movie. Taking the characters of Alan Jay Lerner’s 1951 screenplay as a jumping-off point, Craig Lucas also steers the book more emphatically toward a post-war celebration of dance. Most of the melody remains the same, if you consider that the title ballet was a 17-minute extravaganza on celluloid, but the music and lyrics of the Gershwin brothers have been reshuffled and refortified.

There’s more variety to the music and choreography now – and more meat to the story. Jerry Mulligan remains an aspiring painter and illustrator who lingers in Paris after V-Day, but Lise, the girl he pursues all around the city, is no longer a mere shopgirl. She’s a mesmerizing ballerina with prodigious talent. A prestigious ballet company director wants to hire her after a brief audition, Jerry’s composer friend Adam wants to write a ballet for her, and her longtime protector Henri is working up the courage to ask for her hand in marriage.

Basically, the same obstacles are strewn in Jerry’s path to bliss that were in the film. Lise feels beholden to Henri because she and her Jewish family were sheltered by his family during the Nazi Occupation. At the same time, Jerry must resist the temptations offered by the predatory Milo, a poised and sophisticated patroness bent on seducing Jerry. But here Milo’s philanthropy throws a wider net than simply offering to bankroll an exhibition of Jerry’s work. Here she proposes to commission a new ballet; fostering the ambitions of Adam, who will compose it, Jerry, who will design it; and of course, Lise – the whole piece will be built around this new étoile.

An artsy bunch, all in all, considering that Henri longs to break free from his parents’ sway and become a cabaret singer. But while it’s engaging to watch the romantic complications sort themselves out, the show really gets its kick from Wheedon’s audacious ensemble dances – and takes flight on the wings of the two lovebirds, Robert Fairchild as Jerry and Leanne Cope as Lise. On Wednesdays, you have to choose one or the other, depending on whether you book the matinee or evening performance. The press rep (a woman, I might note) steered me toward the matinee, when Fairchild performs.

A principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, Fairchild has a more classic style than either Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire – and he doesn’t have to flash his moves to attract the fair sex. Singing the Gershwins’ “Liza” and “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” Fairchild’s voice tops off his triple-threat credentials, evoking the velvety sound of Michael Feinstein. Subbing for Cope, Sarah Esty seemed to be the ideal partner for Fairchild, slim and delicate with a Leslie Caron allure lurking in her modesty. She’s no slouch as a ballerina, with a Princess Grace Award on her résumé.

My only disappointment, after hearing Max von Essen on the cast album, was to find Nathan Madden bringing Henri’s French accent to “I’ve Got Rhythm” – and prodding Adam to pep up the tempo. Brandon Uranowitz, another original cast member, delivers Adam’s bohemian pessimism with a Woody Allen twinkle, and Jill Paice is purest porcelain as Milo, just what you’d expect 65 years after Nina Foch originated the role.

School of Rock (***1/2) — There’s very little that I can say in defense of Dewey. He’s loud and obnoxious, deceitful and undependable, slovenly and insensitive, and there’s no way this broke, borrowing loser can get a respectable job unless he steals his best friend’s name and résumé to do it. Or let me put it another way: Dewey is the raging, rambunctious soul of rock ‘n’ roll!

Who would have predicted that His Lordship, Andrew Lloyd Webber, would have added such a shambling misfit to a musical pantheon that includes Evita, Norma Desmond, and The Phantom of Opera – not to mention the biblical Jesus, Joseph, and Deuteronomy!? Musically, Lloyd Weber has tossed dignity to the winds in crafting his adaptation of the popular 2003 Jack Black film. Working with lyricist Glenn Slater, Lord Lloyd produces songs that are loudly arrogant like “I’m Too Hot for You,” loudly anti-establishment like “Stick It to the Man,” loudly defiant like “If Only You Would Listen,” and just loudly stupid like “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock.”

As we witness the culture clash that happens when Dewey signs on as a substitute teacher at a straight-laced prep school, the occasional excursions away from hard rock are dictated by the action. Students and faculty sing the school alma mater, the too-tightly-wound principal ascends to the throne of “Queen of the Night” (yes, from Mozart’s The Magic Flute) at choir practice, and when the shy black girl finally breaks her silence in Act 2, she sings an amazing “Amazing Grace.”

Amid the basic chords of Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, and the wild jungle of heavy metal, there are no American Idol power ballads here. On the contrary, His Lordship hints that he himself might be tired of hearing “Memory” from Cats.

Like Dewey, the composer has had to become perversely devout. Molding his middle-schoolers into an ensemble worthy of competing for the prize money in a battle of the bands contest, Dewey finds that he must treat and respect his students as people – something their teachers and parents haven’t done. Being the man for once instead of always flouting him, Dewey grows up a little. The rascally con man may have even become vulnerable to love by the time the jig is up.

Four nights after School of Rock officially opened, the Winter Garden was filled to capacity and audience enthusiasm was sometimes louder than the band. It was lit by Alex Brightman’s incendiary performance as Dewey, leonine in its energy and fury – and teddy bear-like in its clumsy attempts at humanity. Sierra Boggess, ranging from stiff Mozart to loosey-goosey boogie while principal Rosalie gradually lets her hair down, is also a treat.

But the pre-recorded announcement that the boys and girls onstage will actually be playing their instruments proved to be necessary almost as soon as they showed off their chops. Under the keen direction of Laurence Connor, Brightman is more than willing to let the precocious kids shine. Letting them have a good time performing for a packed house seems to lift Brightman’s spirits as the evening progresses – and they’re coke-high to begin with.

King Charles III (***1/2) — Not so long ago, Queen Elizabeth II became the longest serving monarch in the history of the British Crown. With bard-like presumption, playwright Mike Bartlett peeps into the future and divines what will happen when the longest-tenured heir apparent to the throne finally gets his hands around that precious circle of gold.

Bartlett models his drama on the tragedies and histories of Shakespeare, so we haven’t had to swallow this much blank verse in a contemporary Broadway play since the heyday of Maxwell Anderson. Except for the fact that he’s getting a crown in his declining years rather than yielding it, Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles III is often very Lear-like in his quixotic dealings with his family and Parliament. Somehow in his dotage, Charles has latched onto the notion that being the King of England and assorted remnants of the British Empire ought to count for something in determining how his nation is ruled.

Crowned and presented with a bill that would curb the intrusions of the press into his own royal family, Charles refuses to sign, urging the MPs to reconsider before he does. Such regal arrogance does not go down well with Mr. Evans, the sitting Prime Minister, and we suspect that the support Charles gets from Mr. Stevens, the leader of the opposition, is based less on principle than on political opportunism.

And of course, the cantankerous King is beset by thankless children – and haunted by the ghost of Diana. Yes, there is a conspicuous falling off between the saintly Diana (Sally Scott) who seraphically haunts Buckingham Palace by night and the frumpy Camilla (Margot Leicester), particularly since Charles’s second wife has been afforded the luxury of aging.

Things grow royally trashy when we cut away to the kids. Egged on by the former Kate Middleton, Prince William is quite capable of taking advantage of the growing constitutional crisis and snatching the crown for himself. Echoes of Lady Macbeth are unmistakable in the slim, sleek Lydia Wilson’s portrayal of Kate. With better makeup, a more fashionable wardrobe, she’s a cover girl even in her mourning dress.

William’s resistance to Kate’s rapacious hunger for power is rooted in his keen understanding of the innocuousness demanded of a modern monarch. If he is to prevail, it will be through sheer charm and vapid glamor. Oliver Chris wields all these scepters as if he’s born to it. We just don’t hear this urbane scoundrel very clearly because, like Adam James as the PM, he’s too intent on making Bartlett’s verse sound like everyday chitchat. Sadly, they succeed.

There’s a touch of Hamlet in Charles’s vacillations and in his haunting by Diana, but much the same can be said about little brother Richard Goulding as Harry, who thinks about chucking the whole royal scene for the real world. Goaded in that direction by Tafline Steen as Jess, Harry’s latest flame, the family screw-up gets a taste of an anti-Kate. Goulding offers us the Prince Hal aspects of Harry’s peccadillos, striking me as a younger version of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, while Steen is deliciously instinctive, principled, and rough around the edges.

Plagued by a toxic Congress, we may be more sympathetic to this steely Charles III than his countrymen might be. Make no mistake, in Bartlett’s prognostications for the future, he is very much dissecting and eviscerating the present. Doing it in Shakespearean style just underscores how far we’ve fallen. (Through January 31)

Allegiance (***1/4) — With xenophobia running amuck across our republic, perhaps even deciding the upcoming presidential election, there could hardly be a more opportune moment for exploring the shameful time in our history when we herded Japanese Americans into concentration camps in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. We haven’t reacted to 9/11 with quite the same fevered paranoia, but after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, there were ominous echoes in Donald Trump’s stump speeches – and tweets! – when this new musical opened in November.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen recently when Birds of a Feather opened at Spirit Square, each time playwright Marc Acito touches a hot topic or issue, his script devoutly avoids stirring up emotions with advocacy. In the aftermath of the widespread censorship of And Tango Makes Three, Acito’s Birds managed to so thoroughly dilute the story of Roy and Silo, two gay Central Park penguins who inspired that banned children’s book, that both birds were satirically neutered.

Acito is collaborating on this timely project with Jay Kuo, who also wrote the score, and Lorenzo Thione. But it actually began in 2008, when Kuo and Thione met with George Takei, who stars as our reminiscing narrator, Sam Kimura. Best-known – and loved – for his role as Mr. Sulu in Star Trek, Takei and his family were among 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in the camps during WW2, forcefully evacuated from his home in LA and sent to a relocation center in Arkansas.

Those events are replicated in retrospect, with Telly Leung sidling in as the young Sammy, opera singer Christòpheren Nomura providing substantial backbone as his father, and Lea Salonga – a Broadway star since opening night of Miss Saigon in 1991 – providing an interesting counterweight to the other Kimuras as Sammy’s older sister.

So instead of focusing on the wave of paranoia and bigotry, by Americans and their government, that robbed citizens like Takei of their liberty through most of their childhood, we lock in on the conflicting ways that the Kimuras chose to personify gaman, the Japanese concept of “endurance with dignity.” Tatsuo, Sammy’s father, stands up for his principles by refusing to capitulate to the loyalty questionnaire our government distributed to internees – demanding their pledge of allegiance in writing.

Sammy took the opposite path, not only filling out his questionnaire with the answers Uncle Sam expected but also enlisting in a special Army unit. Sammy is bent on demonstrating his willingness – and his people’s – to go into battle for America and to accept the most hazardous duty Uncle Sam can devise. The resulting family rift can never be healed.

Amid the semi-fictional Kimuras, I found myself intrigued by the one true-life character in Allegiance, Mike Masaoka, the national spokesman for the Japanese American Citizens League. From the safety of Washington, DC, he urged all Japanese Americans to cooperate with the government’s actions – and accept pennies-on-the-dollar offers for their property – rather than question the constitutionality of this Nazi-like roundup.

By the end of the evening, all the Kimuras despised Masaoka. Thanks to the scripted, pampered sleaziness by Greg Watanabe, I also grew to hate Masaoka more than anyone else I saw onstage. With all the unjust indignities heaped upon innocent Japanese citizens, I would rather that my outrage had been channeled toward some of the white bastards who were truly responsible. With the same obliquity of its title, Allegiance denounces their unconscionable actions by showing us the humanity, fortitude, and character of their victims. (Through February 14)

Sylvia (***) — A.R. Gurney’s frisky comedy has been mounted so many times in Charlotte that it can be considered a modern classic. Yet until last October, it hadn’t been done on Broadway. The original 1995 production, starring Sarah Jessica Parker in the title role, ran less than five months, and by the time I caught up with it, the late Jan Hooks of SNL fame had taken settled into the doggie leash.

So it’s quite possible that Parker’s husband, Matthew Broderick, logged more performances in Sylvia during the limited three-month engagement (including previews) that ended less than two weeks ago. Undoubtedly, more people saw Broderick as Greg, the disgruntled commodities trader who spirals into a midlife crisis after indulging and adulating a stray pooch that he picks up in Central Park. The Cort Theatre, where this revival was staged, has more than three times the capacity of the site where the Manhattan Theatre Club first birthed Gurney’s bedraggled part-poodle.

I can’t say that the upsizing does Gurney any favors – aside from allowing him to charmingly record the pre-show cautions about candy wrappers and cell phones. The larger stage allows David Rockwell the opportunity to create a set design encompassing a large swath of the park with imposing luxury hotels in the background. It’s also cool to see Greg’s apartment drop out of the flyloft while the bosky cityscape remains visible through its windows.

But I like Greg better in a small theater where I feel like I’m intruding on his space. On the Broadway stage, Greg is in our larger space – diminished because Broderick is too much the artist to upsize him into theatricality. Annaleigh Ashford takes fierce hold of that job as the mouthy, doggie lead. She can only have gained in stature and confidence since she first won my heart during the summer of 2013 in Kinky Boots. Last season, she snagged a Tony for her role in the You Can’t Take It With You revival.

Under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, Ashford seemed to be straining at times to carry the comedy on her haunches. On the other hand, Julie White as Greg’s increasingly stressed – and jealous – wife Kate seemed exactly the right size, striking a wonderful tone that discarded the shrewishness I’ve seen from other actresses in favor of a very literate exasperation. The lady quotes Shakespeare, after all.

Robert Sella took on the three juicy cameos, but only one of them scored well. Working as Ashford’s foil, Sella was hilarious as Kate’s friend Phyllis, increasingly alarmed by Sylvia’s physical attentions to the point where her visit ended abruptly in panic. Encounters with Tom, the manly owner of the dog who deflowers Sylvia, failed to detonate as well as any of the Charlotte productions I’ve seen. Late in Act 2, both Sullivan and Sella seemed to miss the point of Leslie, the neurotic therapist of indeterminate gender who presumes to offer counseling to Greg and Kate – even though she’s clearly more unstable than either of them.

It was toward the end, when the action became dramatic, that the rapport between the three leads jelled most effectively. The aftershow was also charming, with pictures of audience members’ pets projected on the upstage wall, submitted via social media.

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