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Broadway Class of 2008

July 18, 2008

By Everett Evans, Houston Chronicle

Jul. 17–Broadway’s looking back in glory and forward in promise.

That’s the view from the Great White Way in summer 2008, especially regarding that beleaguered yet beloved art form, the American musical.

The 2007-08 season’s top triumphs in the musical field — as reflected in last month’s Tony Awards — are Lincoln Center Theater’s definitive revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic South Pacific, winner of seven Tonys including best musical revival, and In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s exuberant celebration of a largely Latino neighborhood at the north tip of Manhattan, winner of four Tonys including best new musical and score.

Both not only live up to the ballyhoo surrounding them, but surpass expectations.

In its first Broadway revival since the landmark musical’s original 1949-54 run, South Pacific reminds us just how golden the musical’s mid-20th century Golden Age was — and why it’s so difficult for today’s new shows to live up to that standard.

In the Heights points the path to the future by introducing a fresh voice (composer/lyricist Miranda, 28, who also stars as narrator), bringing an infusion of contemporary sounds and ethnic flavor, yet connecting to musical theater tradition in the show’s structure and spirit.

Two other new shows mark notable debuts by distinctive talents we hope to hear from again: indie rocker Stew’s raucously intelligent Passing Strange and cabaret songwriter John Bucchino’s thoughtful, touching A Catered Affair.

With Patti LuPone giving the performance of her life as Momma Rose, a hurricane-force Gypsy gives South Pacific a run for its money as another must-see revival of a golden-age classic.

A third definitive revival also drew raves this season. I caught director Sam Buntrock’s luminous Sunday in the Park With George in the closing weekend of its limited engagement. With inspired leads Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, and state-of-the-art computer animation supplying magical visuals, this treatment conveyed the soul as well as the genius in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musing on the challenges of making art.

Perhaps the most encouraging trend is that, after too many recent seasons stressing glib spoofery, all of these shows sing from the heart.

South Pacific

More than a classic musical, South Pacific is a landmark of American culture, revealing much about the nation’s self-image. Its faith in love as a redemptive force and in the United States as an agent for good in the world is tempered by its daring in confronting more problematic aspects of national character, such as racial prejudice. Yet somehow the show had come to be taken for granted.

Director Bartlett Sher’s production unleashes the work’s power and meaning so that everything about it feels fresh and relevant again. This is not achieved through any revisionist approach, but simply by treating the material with utmost urgency, honesty and artfulness.

The show’s book (based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific) remains engrossing, with its two intertwined, cross-cultural romances, both complicated by prejudice, set against the backdrop of World War II. The magnificent score expresses the story’s emotional peaks in one great song after another: A Cockeyed Optimist, Some Enchanted Evening, Bali Ha’i, There Is Nothing Like a Dame, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair, A Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime — and that’s just the first act.

Sher gives the production cinematic fluidity, melding the exultant expressiveness of a musical with the intensity of drama. His flair for creating wide-screen pictures on the vast Vivian Beaumont stage is enhanced by Michael Yeargan’s gorgeous production design, with its ever-present vista of sand, sea and sky lit in dramatically shifting hues.

An ideal cast not only has the voices to do justice to the score, but acts with depth and nuance. Radiant Kelli O’Hara projects Nellie’s natural warmth, joy and optimism, as well as her complexities, doubts and contradictions. Opera star Paulo Szot’s eloquent Emile is the perfect romantic hero: worldly, mature, self-possessed yet tinged with rueful awareness of risk and loss.

Matthew Morrison invests the tragic Joe Cable with sincerity and youthful passion. Loretta Ables Sayre makes a vital and shrewd earth mother figure as enigmatic Bloody Mary. Danny Burstein exudes comic spirit as wheeler-dealer Luther Billis, the self-proclaimed big buzz of the Seabees.

From its heart-lifting overture to its moving final scene, this is an unforgettable rendition of a great show. You couldn’t ask for a more enchanted evening.

In the Heights

Irresistible and infectious, this joyous celebration of family and community blends the best of old and new. The stage percolates with youthful energy, salsa flavors and the rhythms of the street. It’s hip. It raps.

Yet in its nod to Broadway tradition, it offers involving plot lines, lovable characters and enough melody, humor and heart tugs to appeal to traditional musical fans, too.

Composer/lyricist Miranda stars as engaging rap raconteur Usnavi, who runs the corner bodega and looks after neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia, who’s been a surrogate parent to him. He tells the stories of the neighborhood, most of them springing from Usnavi’s shop and the two businesses that flank it.

There’s Rosario’s Car Service, run by middle-class strivers Kevin and Camila Rosario, bursting with pride about their superachiever daughter Nina, who’s home from her freshman year at Stanford. Yet Nina is trying to get up the nerve to tell them that she’s dropped out. She’s also getting serious about Benny, a driver for her father’s service, of whom her parents are sure to disapprove, because he’s not “one of us.” (He’s African-American.)

On the other side of Usnavi’s bodega is Daniela’s beauty parlor, where seemingly aloof knockout Vanessa is one of the hairdressers. Usnavi is sweet on Vanessa but shy about asking her out.

Quiara Alegria Hudes’ funny and heartfelt book balances the various plot lines neatly. Miranda’s songs bubble from the situations and characters, spilling their catchy rhythms and pleasing melodies, especially in such strong ballads as Breathe, Siempre and Alabanza. Though rap is Usnavi’s favorite mode of expression (and the rap lyrics are clever), the score is far more diverse.

The ambitious opening number introduces all the characters, functioning much like Tradition in Fiddler on the Roof. Indeed, Heights resembles Fiddler by finding the universal appeal in a distinctive ethnic enclave.

In the Heights expresses the dreams of its various characters so sympathetically that you’re quickly caught up in their struggles.

Olga Merediz’s inspiring Abuela Claudia is a standout, especially in Paciencia y Fe, a demanding aria recounting her history and philosophy. But then, In the Heights abounds in spirited, strong-voiced performances, including Mandy Gonzalez’s driven Nina, Robin de Jesus’ irrepressible Sonny, Karen Olivo’s ambitious Vanessa and Priscilla Lopez as the firm but loving Camila.

Director Thomas Kail gives the production drive, intimacy and communal warmth on set designer Anna Louizos’ colorful, textured, lived-in block. Veteran dancer Andy Blankenbuehler comes into his own as choreographer with his invigorating dances, pumping up exciting ensembles such as 96,000 and Carnaval del Barrio.

Here’s a lively, lovable new hit that should run for years and prove just as popular on the road.

Gypsy

Unlike South Pacific, Gypsy has had Broadway revivals — no less than three, the most recent in 2003. Since the show’s astute librettist Arthur Laurents, who directed the current revival, also staged its 1974 and 1989 productions, you’d think it might be difficult for this latest Gypsy to create the same sense of occasion as the first-ever South Pacific revival.

That would be to underestimate the monumental impact of Patti LuPone as Rose, the King Lear of musical roles. The other two leads give extraordinarily effective performances, too: Laura Benanti as Louise, the neglected daughter who ultimately blossoms into striptease queen Gypsy Rose Lee, and Boyd Gaines as loyal, conflicted agent Herbie. All three won Tonys — Benanti the first to win in the show’s title role.

While Laurents’ incisive direction is not that different from his previous stagings, replete with some still-dazzling Jerome Robbins choreography from the 1959 original, this time Laurents has squeezed maximum dramatic impact from every song, scene and searing confrontation — as in Rose’s showdowns with the departing Herbie, and with Louise, as she finally insists Momma must “let go.”

The result is a knockout Gypsy that leaves you wondering if the show ever has been, or ever could be, performed more powerfully.

Laurents’ book seems stronger than ever, with its deft telescoping of years and its laceratingly honest look at showbiz and parent-child relationships. Especially unusual is its view of ambition not as a marvel but as a destructive force.

Against the backdrop of seedy vaudeville and seedier burlesque, Madam Rose struggles to achieve vicarious satisfaction by making stars of unwilling daughters June and Louise. Ultimately she succeeds at driving away both daughters and long-suffering agent/boyfriend Herbie.

Jule Styne’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics remain brilliant — rendered more potent than ever by LuPone and company.

This truly does seem the role LuPone was born to play. She acts and sings with volcanic passion, devastating determination and electrifying presence. Benanti’s evolution from the sensitive and perpetually slighted Louise to self-possessed star Gypsy is another revelation. The Let Me Entertain You montage, progressing from Gypsy’s first tentative “strip” at a Wichita dive to the provocative confidence of her big-time stardom at Minsky’s, has never been more persuasively realized than in Benanti’s transformation.

Lenora Nemetz and Marilyn Caskey are hilarious as the dire, over-the-hill strippers introducing Louise to the tricks of the trade in their show-stopping You Gotta Have a Gimmick.

Gypsy doesn’t need a gimmick. Not with this material and La LuPone.

Passing Strange

Like In the Heights, Passing Strange features its author in a pivotal role and moved to Broadway after an acclaimed off-Broadway run.

Stew (born Mark Stewart) is the indie-rock composer, musician and singer who’s developed a following with his group, the Negro Problem. In Passing Strange, he has created an idiosyncratic, autobiographical work chronicling his quest for artistic identity and journey toward maturity.

A genial yet sometimes sardonic figure with bald head, yellow-tinted shades and blunt manner, Stew leads his onstage band and narrates, while Daniel Breaker plays his youthful alter ego (called Youth), who flees his comfortable middle-class Baptist upbringing in Los Angeles.

Seeking “the real,” Youth embarks on that familiar self-discovery itinerary (sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll), with eventful stops in Amsterdam and Berlin. He passes through many phases and dons various guises, even acting the deprived American black for a time — until a Berlin friend calls him on his “ghetto” act.

Stew’s knowing grown-up version responds to the self-obsessed Youth’s adventures with sarcasm, bemusement and tolerance. Youth ultimately learns that you can find the real only in art, not in life — that art, in fact, is more real than life.

With its informal feeling and loose construction, played on a bare stage backed by a wall of neon-bright lights, Passing Strange feels like a blend of performance art and rock concert. There’s an authentic rock profile in its propulsive music, composed by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. Yet the eclectic score spans from punk to a touch of Kurt Weill. Stew’s lyrics, growing out of his Tony-winning book, are punchy, pointed and often witty.

Director Annie Dorsen gives the show the spontaneity of a happening.

Despite getting the most enthusiastic reviews of any new musical this season, Passing Strange has struggled to find its audience, seldom playing to more than 50 percent of capacity. Could that be because it’s more aggressively and purely “rock” than the year’s other contemporary show (Heights), lacking the cuddlier qualities that make that one more accessible to traditional show goers?

New York Times critic Charles Isherwood may have been unintentionally prophetic when he wrote, “Please don’t call it a Broadway musical; you might scare away too many people who might actually enjoy it.”

But though Passing Strange ends its Broadway run today, it will soon reach a wider audience. Spike Lee, one of the show’s fans, filmed Saturday’s matinee and evening performances. As a concert film for theatrical release, Passing Strange may find a more receptive audience than it did on Broadway.

A Catered Affair

The Broadway debut of well-regarded cabaret songwriter John Bucchino is not in the contemporary vein of Heights and Passing Strange. But this low-key, atypical show is daring in its own way: a quiet, honest, slice of life about a cash-strapped Bronx family in the 1950s, thrown into conflict about whether to use the family savings to buy a lavish wedding for its only daughter.

While Tom (the father) wants to use the money to buy part ownership in his cab, mother Aggie is determined to give her only remaining child the grand wedding she herself never had. The family’s son, the eldest and favored child, has been killed in Korea, raising the ante emotionally as the parents prepare to part with daughter Janie. She and her fiance Ralph want only a simple civil ceremony — but Janie is torn as she realizes how much the wedding means to her mother.

With one key exception, Harvey Fierstein’s book is sensitive, tight and sturdy.

Bucchino’s delicate conversational songs weave in and out of the dialogue in a seamless flow, wisps of lovely melody with sensitive lyrics.

Director John Doyle, renowned for revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company, has given the piece a faultless staging; he’s in supreme control of mood and atmosphere.

Faith Prince’s superbly restrained, profoundly moving portrayal of Aggie is the emotional center — full of disappointment, resignation and yearning. She sings her key solos Married, Vision and Our Only Daughter magnificently. Yet she has her most remarkable impact in a couple of key moments played in absolute silence — one of them the pivotal decision about the wedding.

Tom Wopat gives his best perfromance yet as the hard-working, unappreciated Tom — sullen until pouring out his frustrations in his potent solo I Stayed.

Leslie Kritzer is wonderful as the practical, good-hearted daughter with no hard feelings that she was never the favorite, still trying to do right by everyone.

The show’s chief problem is the role Fierstein has written for himself as the family’s live-in gay uncle. Besides being largely superfluous (when everything else here is pared to bare essentials), Winston’s openness about his orientation seems out of sync with the period, and Fierstein’s raspy voice makes ordeals of his songs.

I expect A Catered Affair (whose Broadway run ends July 27) will find a life at regional theaters looking for an intimate musical with “plain folk” heart appeal.

Some might gripe about a season in which the largest number of Tonys went to a 50-year-old show. Indeed, some have: “Can’t they think of anything new?”

Yet it’s the theater’s duty to offer both the greatest works of the past and new works of merit. Any season that brought three classics done as well as they could possibly be done, and three new scores as diverse and worthwhile as In the Heights, Passing Strange and Catered Affair, has no reason for apologies.

As a line in Sunday in the Park so succinctly puts it: “All it has to be is good.”

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