Reviews: Broadway – Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; Hamilton; A Bronx Tale; In Transit; Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour; On Your Feet! Off-Broadway – The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Spamilton, Cagney
By Perry Tannenbaum
Our new POTUS was already impacting Broadway before he took the oath of office, and it’s quite possible that he’ll have further impact during his coming years in the Oval Office, either as the Tweeter-in-Chief on new and controversial shows or as their subject. In the wake of President-elect Trump’s salvos against Hamilton and its cast, Broadway capped a record year with an all-time record week to close 2016, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s megahit became the first Broadway show to top $4 million in ticket sales for a single week – not counting the scalpers’ profits.
If President Obama’s imprimatur, Michelle’s extravagant praise, and 11 Tony Awards hadn’t already made it abundantly clear, the Pence-Trump flap and its aftermath engraved it in stone: we can now talk of the Age of Hamilton on Broadway with the same casual assurance that we speak of the Age of Trump in Washington. But The Donald brings up a valid question. While the importance of Hamilton is beyond dispute, how good is it really?
My wife Sue and I went up to New York, as we do every year for my roundup of Broadway and off-Broadway shows, with the intent of bringing the answer back to Charlotte. Miracle of miracles, I actually landed press seats for Hamilton! Something really had changed since the days I’d been routinely spurned by producers of Book of Mormon, Wicked, and Lion King, blockbusters of bygone seasons.
Since I found a pair of new musicals that I enjoyed as much or more than Hamilton, I’m sure that my verdicts will be received back home as “alternative” truths. But now that the era of alternative facts has arrived, there’s no reason for me to be shy.
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (♥♥♥3/4 out of four) – Hailed as the best American musical since Hamilton, Dave Malloy’s adaptation of Part 8 of War and Peace actually preceded Miranda’s work to the off-Broadway stage by over two years. The Great Comet was a hot ticket back in 2013 when it was restaged as a uniquely immersive experience in the meatpacking district of Manhattan’s Lower West Side – under a massive tent with a full Russian dinner included in the ticket price.
There’s no denying that Hamilton is the more American musical, but unless rap has been your lifelong backbeat, you’ll likely find The Great Comet to be far more musical. On the other hand, transferring the uniqueness of the dinner experience from a big top to Broadway must have been far more daunting for Malloy’s production team.
The response to the Imperial Theatre’s proscenium has been anything but timid. What normally serves as the stage has been built up to a soaring five-level supper club with three pairs of staircases and four onstage seating sections, outfitted with tables and banquettes. Two runways bring the action out into the audience, where additional tables and lamps are strewn, and two additional staircases bring the actors – and the musicians – up into the balcony. A whole galaxy of starburst chandeliers hovers above, the largest of which will transform into the Great Comet when its moment comes.
Two hundred seats have been reportedly removed from the Imperial’s orchestra section to make all this happen.
If you’ve read War and Peace from cover to cover, you come in knowing that Natasha Rostova and Pierre Bezukhov are destined for each other, but that’s over 700 pages after Pierre has his comet epiphany. So that part of Leo Tolstoy’s original story is only faintly budding where Malloy concludes. When we first meet Pierre, he’s imprisoned in a humiliating marriage to Hélène. Natasha is deeply in love – and betrothed to – the dashing Prince Andrey Bolkonsky. We only get fleeting glimpses of Andrey here, for he is away in the battlefield defending Mother Russia against Napoleon, while Natasha is partying in Moscow and bewitching all who see her youthful vibrancy.
Denée Benton is a dazzling comet in her own right as Natasha, and Josh Groban is sensationally woebegone as the clumsy, contemplative Pierre. But their intersecting fates are set in motion by the wicked machinations of the wanton Hélène and her charismatic, libertine brother, Prince Anatole Kuryagin. Being secretly married doesn’t inhibit Anatole’s roving, salacious eyes, and Hélène gets him to train them on Natasha. So these sibling schemers are enormously juicy roles – and unquestionable triumphs – for Amber Gray and Lucas Steele.
Hélène’s cynicism and Anatole’s conceited recklessness ultimately bring out in what we treasure most in Natasha and Pierre: her vulnerability and innocence and his moral outrage and empathy for his brother-in-law’s victim. So Gray and Steele actually enable Benton and Groban to raise their levels. Malloy’s music also allows the protagonists’ emotions to grow in depth as they’re dinged by experience. In style, Malloy’s music seems at times to be the kind of pastiche Andrew Lloyd Weber created, but the precision and wit of his lyrics are more in Stephen Sondheim’s realm.
A few times during this enchanting work, I found myself feeling that The Great Comet was far more like what contemporary opera should be than it usually is. Yet the piece is not at all old fashioned. At the outset in his “Prologue,” Malloy acknowledges that the number of characters and their triple Russian names can be daunting, so he fortifies the synopsis and “Family Tree” printed in the playbill with individual intros of all the major players. Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin also play loose with polite decorum as we move along. The handsome Anatole, for example, isn’t merely a villain. Steele’s strut and platinum-spiked hair mark him as a rockstar.
Hamilton (♥♥♥1/2) – Whether you swallowed the hype and waited for months, impulsively paid through the nose to scalpers, or simply won the daily $10 ticket lottery, you will likely be thrilled to find yourself at the Richard Rodgers Theatre awaiting the start of Miranda’s megahit. Fueled by the aura of Obama approval and the notoriety of the Pence controversy, enthusiasm for this show is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed at a Broadway theater. Likewise, the buzz: Sue and I overheard people who had returned three or four times to see various Burrs and Hamiltons. Knowing a friend who could compare one Burr’s performance to another’s was reason enough to brag.
Expectant electricity was so hot that when Jevon McFerrin made his first entrance as Alexander Hamilton, there was a thunderous response. Now McFerrin isn’t the actor who succeeded Miranda in the title role or the former alternate, Javier Muñoz, who is starring now – or even his alternate. No, McFerrin was actually the standby for Miranda’s replacement’s replacement and his current alternate (on Sundays), Michael Luwoye. Yet the ovation that greeted McFerrin would have satisfied Miranda himself, a response traditionally reserved for established stars and Tony winners.
Don’t get me wrong: McFerrin was wonderful, bringing a Jimmy Smits manliness to our nearly-forgotten Founding Father – not unlike what I read about Muñoz back when he was doing Sundays. The ladies’ man aspect of Hamilton sits well on McFerrin’s shoulders, and there’s a faint physical resemblance to the man on the $10 bill.
That could hold him back from taking over the lead full-time on Broadway or on tour. Hamilton is so resolutely against the grain in its hip-hop score and ethnically diverse casting that McFerrin may not shake things up enough for Miranda and director Thomas Kail. In this fresh retelling of the birth of our nation, Thomas Jefferson is portrayed as a dandified dilettante, John Adams is reduced to a non-entity, and Aaron Burr becomes a wily fence-straddler with no real principles of his own.
Of course, our hero stands out amid such preening jive turkeys. While David Korins’ set design takes some of the starch out of colonial times with its fluid warehouse-loft cool, Paul Tazewell’s costumes leave plenty of retro frilliness in place. Yet Hamilton’s concept of our treasury and monetary system prevails over Jefferson’s in a cabinet meeting that is nothing more than a two-minute poetry slam.
We hear so much about Miranda’s inclusion of the Schuyler Sisters in his script, but the women in Hamilton’s life don’t really impact upon his political fortunes until his extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds becomes a torrid scandal. So I valued Syndee Winters’ turn (subbing for Alysha Deslorieux) as the abused and seductive Maria more than her prior appearances as Peggy Schuyler – and certainly more than Lexi Lawson as the perpetually deluded Eliza, the Schuyler that Hamilton married, or Mandy Gonzalez’s stoical Angelica, the sister Hamilton truly preferred. For me, Hamilton doesn’t become exciting until the Schuylers stop dominating the stage.
What we don’t hear so much about is Miranda’s towering portrait of George Washington – as leader of the Continental Army and as our first President. Nicholas Christopher gives such a monumental portrait of Washington that he largely upstaged the other George in our nativity story, King George, ably played for laughs by Rory O’Malley with patrician foppery. The momentous stamp that Christopher puts on “History Has Its Eyes on You” certainly outshines O’Malley’s comic relief. After mucking around, Hamilton gets its drive and substantiality from Christopher’s solo.
After his light sprinkling of Gallic charm as the Marquis de Lafayette, it’s certainly fitting that Seth Stewart returns as Jefferson. There’s both humor and pizzazz in Stewart’s jazzy “What’d I Miss” to start Act 2, but Brandon Victor Dixon as Burr is more conniving than commanding. Dixon’s big showpiece, “The Room Where It Happens,” comes to a spectacular froth with Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, but we should be getting a more vivid sense of Burr’s incipient menace.
At a certain point, the sheer energy of the cast meshes with the rising drama of Hamilton’s sex scandal and his fatal feud. Combine that with the white-hot electricity that crackles through the house and the experience of Hamilton is still unique and unforgettable.
A Bronx Tale (♥♥♥1/2) – Full disclosure: through kindergarten, I grew up in the Bronx, so the mean streets of New York’s grubbiest borough are a key reason why this Chazz Palminteri story resonates with me especially deeply. Miranda’s In the Heights had almost the same effect on me when I saw it, the 181st Street subway station and the distant George Washington Bridge taking me back to my daily high school commute into upper Manhattan. Palmentari’s story takes us further back, beginning in childhood and further deepening my response.
Young Calogero (which is Palminteri’s real given name) is the Bronx kid whose life changes in the blink of an eye. I mean that literally, since everybody blinks – and winces – in response to the first gunshot they ever hear, particularly when it kills someone ten feet away from you and the front steps of your tenement home. The killer is Sonny, equivalent to a precinct captain in the mobster world, feared throughout the neighborhood. Calogero’s father, Lorenzo, is a strong and principled city bus driver, but he knows full well who Sonny is and how to play by the neighborhood rules.
When the police come to investigate, Lorenzo wants to protect his son and keep him out of it, but Calogero boldly insists he is a witness. In a tense scene at the police station, Calogero walks in front of an imposing lineup of thugs, clearing them all until he reaches Sonny. It’s almost comical when tall, menacing Nick Cordero as Sonny and Hudson Loverro as the nine-year-old Calogero stand toe-to-toe looking each other in the eye. Calogero turns calmly to the cops and, instead of fingering Sonny, clears him. A bond is formed between Sonny and Calogero – one that his straight-arrow dad absolutely disapproves of.
Ah, but the fringe benefits of Sonny’s favor are irresistible, including instant respect and deference from schoolmates and stacks of easy money. When we flash forward to Calogero’s teen years, Bobby Conte Thornton eases his way from his stint as our narrator into the conflicted, sensitive tough guy our protagonist – nicknamed C by Sonny – has become. Both Lorenzo and Sonny dislike the gang of friends that C is prowling the neighborhood with. Otherwise, the two paths personified by Lorenzo and Sonny diverge, the father modeling a respectability that’s steady, traditional, but unsatisfying, Sonny offering an attractive pragmatism drenched in danger.
C’s path becomes even more perilous in Act 2 when he ranges outside his Italian Belmont Avenue turf and tries to date a black schoolmate from the Webster Avenue neighborhood, because she might be “one of the great ones.” With both Jane’s and C’s friends and families against the liaison, the situation quickly mushrooms into West Side Story explosiveness, since Jane’s brother also runs with a gang.
There’s definitely an all-star team behind the scenes, beginning with the co-directors: Robert De Niro, who directed the 1993 film adaptation of Palminteri’s 1989 one-man show, co-starring with the playwright/screenwriter (who snagged the plum role of Sonny); and four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks, who piloted the 2007 Broadway premiere of the play. Helping Palminteri to flesh out his solo vehicle to Tony contender proportions are hall-of-fame songwriter Alan Menken and his frequent collaborator, lyricist Glenn Slater.
They’re savvy enough to give the best songs to Sonny, and Cordero cashes in on both of them. First he imparts his sage “Nicky Machiavelli” advice, comically backed by his colorful public enemy flunkeys. Then he tugs at our heartstrings with “One of the Great Ones,” passed along later in Act 2 to Thornton, who proves to us that this advice is in good hands. Richard H. Blake also gets to sing some valuable words to his son in the opening act as Lorenzo before his influence wanes. What deepens the counsel of both these father figures is the tinge of regret that colors their ballads. Ultimately, that threat of missing lost opportunities looms larger than the dangers of the mean streets.
In Transit (♥♥♥1/4) – The first a cappella musical to run on Broadway, this isn’t the follow-up you would expect from Kristen Anderson-Lopez after co-creating Disney’s Frozen and writing its songs. She and three other co-writers interweave four stories about New York subway commuters. All of the key characters are fast-paced Millennials: Judy, an aspiring actress; Trent, her gay agent; Nate, recently let go by a Wall Street firm; and his sister Ali, newly arrived in the city after a breakup.
My trepidations about a full evening of a cappella quickly evaporated when, after a pre-show advisory that all sounds would be produced by human voice, Chesney Snow added his to the mix as Boxman. From the opening “Deep Beneath the City,” we knew that Snow would supply ample percussion. Electronics are definitely not verboten, and he is a wizard behind his mic. Arrangements by Deke Sharon, of Pitch Perfect fame, further assured that instrumentation wasn’t sorely missed.
Filling in for Margo Seibert as Jane, Laurel Harris almost delivered star quality to her lead vocals bookending the show, but the bigger hurdle for me was Jane herself, wrestling with the dilemma of whether to chuck her job after nailing her big audition. Deserving actresses who suddenly catch a break aren’t exactly a novelty in Broadway musicals – and of course they go for it! And a gay guy struggling to come out to his Red State mom was groundbreaking back when these lovebirds were toddlers.
So while Justin Guarini as Trent and Steven Robinson as his understanding boyfriend were quite winsome, I found myself more drawn to the fumbling and bumbling of James Snyder as Nate. Hurrying to get to an interview on time, he inadvertently swipes his MetroCard wrong, emptying its remaining balance before clearing the turnstiles at his subway station. Moya Angela is pure New York as the lady in the cash booth who issues or replenishes MetroCards – no empathy whatsoever and certainly no mercy.
Angela moonlights as Trent’s impassive Texas mom and as Jane’s boss, singing perhaps the catchiest song in the show, “A Little Friendly Advice,” encouraging her to quit. So Angela’s scene-stealing abilities get repeated play. I warmed up to Jane largely because she opened herself up to the floundering Nate, and Erin Mackey became more than two dimensional for me as Ali when David Abeles as her old boyfriend Dave bumped into her. Underground, of course. For them – and for Nate and Jane – MetroCards are tickets to romance, rightfully replicated in the logo and the costuming of In Transit.
Cirque du Soleil Paramour (♥♥1/2) – Disney and Oprah have done it and, critics be damned, Marvel Comics has done it no less spectacularly. So after flirting with tent shows across the Hudson in the Meadowlands and tailoring shows for Madison Square Garden, it was inevitable that Montreal entertainment juggernaut Cirque du Soleil would make their own assault on Broadway, in hopes of a long-running megahit. Looking at what Marvel had done before their abortive leap and what they hadn’t done – music and Vegas – Cirque must have felt that producers of Spiderman had snuck ahead in line.
What I’d never seen Cirque do before, though I’d seen theatrical characters and singing in their shows, is either story or language. Interspersed with acrobatics and clowning in Cirque-taculars I’d seen were the most heartfelt gibberish ballads you’ll ever hear. Those gaps Cirque needed to leap over to land in the frontier of a genuine Broadway musical figured to be miniscule when Paramour opened for previews last April, but they’ve proven to be a chasm.
The show’s e-program lists Philippe Decouflé as director and conceiver of the show, but despite assurances that Paramour is “written with the utmost respect for the traditions of Broadway, by way of Busby Berkeley,” there’s no professional writer aboard a production team that includes four creatives and 11 designers. Small wonder that the three-character story is fairly well buried in its circus derring-do and Golden Age of Hollywood designs.
The most interesting speaking character we encounter is our narrator, AJ, a driven Hollywood producer/director who prowls LA in search of new talent. Jeremy Kushnier attains a sleazy carnival charisma as our mogul host after he finds inspiration at an outré nightclub where he is captivated by Indigo, a chanteuse who performs with her songwriting partner – surrounded by a flying flurry of acrobats.
Ruby Lewis as Indigo absorbs some of the exotic allure of her glittery surroundings, and Kushnier’s leering adoration pushes her up another notch as he promises to make her a movie star. Keeping the topics of love and marriage on the back burner, AJ brings the piano player, Joey, along for the ride so Indigo will believe that his motives are purely commercial and artistic. Trouble is, Lewis finds it impossible to shine when saddled with the music by Bob and Bill (forgettable lyrics by Andreas Carlsson), either at the club or in front of the camera.
Ryan Vona’s predicament as Joey actually becomes laughable as AJ keeps prying his partner away, making her a star while he languishes in obscurity. The presumption is that Indigo’s true love must be a songwriting genius that AJ is cruelly holding back, telling him over and over that nothing he has written is good enough. But it’s obvious that Cirque’s team couldn’t write a breakthrough song for Joey if they tried.
With the story sputtering into clichés on loan from 42nd Street and other showbiz sagas, we find ourselves longing for those famed Cirque acrobats to return and obliterate our principals all they wish. Swinging out from the stage and over the audience, identical twins Andrew and Kevin Atherton are the most compelling of the aerialists, their choreography combining sensuousness, skill, daring, and grace.
But they don’t exemplify best what Paramour could be if circus and story and music were truly integrated. That happens near the end when Indigo eludes AJ’s clutches and runs away with Joey – implausibly to the roof of a hotel. Suddenly a chase fantasia breaks out with the reprise of “Everything (The Lovers’ Theme).” Both the hunters and the hunted bounce prodigiously up and down in a dizzying blur. Sometimes they’re perching on the surrounding rooftops, and sometimes they’re walking on the walls in their upward trajectory before plunging down to unseen trampolines. Spectacular, exhilarating silliness.
The follow-up text message to the one that links to the e-program rightly asks, “Head still spinning?” before seeking a 1-10 rating. Mine was 6. (Through April 16)
On Your Feet! (♥♥1/4) – So intense was my aversion for Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons that it took my wife almost four seasons before she could coax me into seeing Jersey Boys. And guess what? While I didn’t totally warm up to the falsetto of Frankie’s Broadway clone or the music written for him by Bob Gaudio, I unexpectedly found myself very impressed with the show.
After assuming that it had closed months before, I stumbled upon this musical not knowing a tenth as much about the pop oeuvre of Emilio & Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine. If Alexander Dinelaris, winner of the Oscar for his Birdman screenplay, could deliver an equally fine book for this jukebox musical, then it might soar far above Jersey Boys, which somehow navigated “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” the Scylla and Charybdis of bubblegum music.
I was counting on the Estefans to have produced something else among their hits as infectious as their “Conga,” and I was expecting Dinelaris to bring out some moving conflict, compelling drama, or fascinating characteristics in telling their story. Neither hope was fulfilled. Christie Prades filled in for Ana Villafañe on the Friday night we attended, so we may have missed the maximum voltage of the Estefans’ sizzle when Ektor Rivera as Emilio beholds his usual leading lady.
With nothing but endless tepid love from the leads – only occasionally amped up by the Estefans’ spicy Latin orchestrations – the drama mostly comes from the strife in Gloria’s childhood household. Both her mom and her grandma perceive Emilio’s talent and appeal, but Doreen Montalvo (subbing for Andrea Burns) as Mom wants to protect her daughter from this Don Juan while the wiser Alma Cuervo as Consuelo appreciates Emilio’s potential and cojones. She rightly sees Emilio as sincere in his affections and helps Gloria in getting up the nerve to audition for him.
The eventual estrangement between Gloria and her mom is as heavy as things get, the only aspect of our heroine’s life that threatens not to work out. Flashy, sassy choreography from Sergio Trijillo seemed sufficient to work the throngs of true fans in the house to orgiastic enthusiasm despite the drama deficit, but the magic was lost upon non-believers like me who had seen genuine Broadway pizzazz before.
My post-show Spotify search for what I was missing about Estefan’s allure only cemented my indifference. But I did find one other Miami Sound Machine hit that I was familiar with: “Bad Boy.” It isn’t in the show, but if Dinelaris had worked that song dramatically into his storyline, he might have discovered the path to riveting my attention. Yes, Mom was wrong about Emilio and Gloria – too wrong. If their chemistry was more like that song – and less like Barbi and Ken – I wouldn’t have come away thinking that maybe the image-conscious Estefans simply tied Dinelaris’s hands.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (♥♥♥1/2) – Since the opening of Sleep No More in 2011, the reclaimed McKittrick Hotel has established itself as a hip nightlife destination, with theatre and music as its main calling cards. Multiple events are staged every night in this spooky old building, and I’m not sure I’ve detected any previous European imports on the McKittrick’s weekly mailings. But this National Theater of Scotland production is certainly a winner, far outshining McKittrick’s staple Scottish Play fantasia.
There are whiffs of the supernatural in Prudencia, too, combined with a down-to-earth presentation style and a winsome mockery of academicians. David Grieg and Wils Wilson, both mainstays at Theatre of Scotland, conceived this cosmic yarn of a frumpy academic whose ideas about folkloric ballads don’t square with the notions of her stodgy colleagues at a scholarly symposium – in a wintry wilderness where Sir Walter Scott and his forbears may have set fictions.
Living in more modern times, Prudencia seeks solace at a karaoke bar near a Costco parking lot. But in a fierce blizzard, she loses the true path in a very old-fashioned way, finding shelter at a B&B that turns out to be the eternal house of Beelzebub. Satan is very welcoming, with a handsome library and a liberal lending policy, but he’s also very possessive. After the calendar flips to the year 3816, the next cue card has the simple mathematical sign for infinity.
All of this unfolds around us in a space that conjures up a Scottish pub, flanked by a whisky bar on one side and a staging area on the other, where cast members pick up their instruments and find their props. Of course, there’s plenty balladeering as the story unfolds, but the intimacy and friendliness of the atmosphere is enhanced by the actors mingling with the audience, standing on our tables, maybe sitting in our laps, picking on the bald guy, and giving us homework. We all get little sheafs of paper to shred into snowflakes for the great blizzard.
Inevitably, centuries and centuries hence, Prudencia will have her awakening, so the autumnal quality that Melody Grove bestows on her is a thing of beauty, Sleeping Beauty in its fairytale rightness. There’s a sybaritic likability mixed into Peter Hannah’s Satan, as if the Prince of Darkness were actually Sebastian Cabot playing the Ghost of Christmas Present. The free shot of Scotch doled out at the beginning of festivities – plus assorted beverages you can fetch from the bar at any time – may help to lubricate this unique McKittrick experience. Even cold sober, I found this five-person troupe utterly charming. (Through March 26)
Spamilton (♥♥♥1/4) – No doubt about it, Gerard Alessandrini, perpetrator of many fine Forbidden Broadway revues, is on-target once again as he skewers Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the whole mania surrounding his megahit. Even the cheap shots land solidly – if that’s the right category for “Can you believe you paid 800 bucks for this?”
But it turns out that Spamilton is also a revue, unable to keep the show everyone is talking about in its crosshairs for a full 80 minutes. Instead, we wander off to Lion King, Avenue Q, and Book of Mormon, blockbusters that were demolished by Alessandrini in previous Forbiddens, along with his penchant for using puppets to mock shows that use puppets. Or he wanders further off with guest diva Gina Kreiezmar reprising her priceless send-ups of Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, Patti LuPone and either Carol Channing or Angela Lansbury begging on the street for Hamilton tickets.
Dan Rosales maintains quite a bit of Miranda’s I-can’t-believe-all-this-is-happening charm, even as he mercilessly roasts him and his hero. Cameron Amandus stood in for Chris Anthony Giles as Burr, and Lauren Villegas did fine work taking us off-track to J-Lo, Gloria Estefan, Beyoncé, and beyond – obliquely proving that all three Schuyler Sisters in Hamilton put together provide too little meat to pick apart.
Alessandrini remains the king of on- and off-Broadway parodists when he has Miranda insisting “I will not throw away my pot,” when Burr speculates on who’s “gonna be in the film when it happens,” or when he turns “Aaron Burr, Sir” into this choice barb: “Be terser with your verse, sir – you ain’t no Johnny Mercer.” But there is one big lesson that Alessandrini could have taken from his victim. Beginning with the famed mini-sample performed at the White House, Miranda built up his full-length blockbuster gradually, giving the public cumulative glances before the final reveal.
That’s what Alessandrini should do. As a Dickens hero once begged, “More, please!” (Through April 30)
Cagney (♥♥♥) – Even after he showed his aptitude for comedy One, Two, Three, it was difficult for me to comprehend how universally James Cagney was beloved in Hollywood, affectionately called Jimmy by all who spoke of him. From the beginning of his career, when he made his splash in a series of gangster films, his barking machine-gun delivery marked him as a gangster on speed.
Ah, but then I caught up with Yankee Doodle Dandy, where Cagney played patriotic showman George M. Cohan. The man could dance! Still maintaining his famed “you dirty rat” cadence, he could also sell a song. And though I only recently learned that Cagney spoke a fluent Yiddish, when he accepted the Congressional Gold Medal in the closing sequence, he reminded me of my dear departed zayde – except when, in an inspired flourish, he danced down the stairs on his way out.
There’s no denying that Robert Creighton has made a thorough study of Cagney, for he not only takes on the role of the Tinseltown terror, he chips in three of the songs and lyrics. Christopher McGovern has written most of the functional score, and a Cohan classic brings the curtain down on each of the two acts. Curiously, no photo or video I’ve seen captures how thoroughly Creighton has mastered his subject. Seen live, he has the sound of Cagney’s voice, the scornful curl of his upper lip, and – most important for me – the stiff, forward-leaning marionette style of his dancing.
Peter Colley’s book starts out like a biography, but it isn’t long before the chronological cavalcade coalesces into Cagney’s longtime artistic relationship and antagonism with studio chieftain Jack Warner. Colley makes it quite clear that Cagney had already become a solid and versatile leading man on Broadway before Warner gave him a call. Close up and in person, Warner isn’t nearly as impressed with Cagney’s presence as he was with his clippings. It’s only when the mogul sees the rushes of Cagney’s first film that he grudgingly elevates him to a leading role.
Bruce Sabath slickly personifies Warner’s autocratic arrogance and shrewd, cocksure intelligence from his initial faceoff with Cagney. There’s plenty of friction to come. Cagney not only chafes against being typecast as a gangster, he also champions the cause of actors and studio professionals who were exploited by execs who reaped the profits of their labors. And he was a staunch supporter of labor unions, which landed Cagney in hot water with both the studio and Congress.
Ding! That must be the real reason Jimmy was so beloved in Hollywood.
All the major signposts are touched: the famed grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy, “Top of the world!” in White Heat, and the climactic Yankee Doodle Dandy tap dance. To Colley’s credit, it’s not all black-and-white between Cagney and Warner. After decades of squabbles, breakups, and reunions, Cagney can acknowledge his boss’s business acumen and Warner can respect Cagney’s talent and pugnacity. They reach a somewhat sullen détente at the end when Warner performs the honors in presenting Cagney with a Lifetime Achievement Award – from the Screen Actors Guild!
So what’s missing? In a word, scale. Everything I witnessed at the upstairs West Side Theatre – the cast, the scenery, the instrumental arrangements, and the choreography – cried out for bigger Broadway dimensions to fit Cagney’s outsized talents and personality. If you’re taking on a whole industry, the stage should be more than 18 feet wide. Warner, Cohan and Cagney were entertainment giants, but in a little upstairs venue, they’re more like sideshow hustlers. Hire more actors, an orchestrator, and let the great work begin.
Photo Credits: Chad Batka, Joan Marcus, Richard Termine, Matthew Murphy, Jenny Anderson, Carol Rosegg