Shorter running times. No intermissions. Single sets. On and Off Broadway, small can indeed be beautiful.
In New York recently, I found fresh reminders of how little size and whiz-bang spectacle matter when craft, creativity and performance prowess are in abundance.
The drift away from epic glitz is, to some degree, purely economic. Fewer producers want to play roulette with shows that can cost (and lose) a fortune. (In March 2014, the Disney behemoth “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” will close a roughly three-year stint on Broadway, without recouping its $75-million investment.)
Yes, glitzy hoopla is in the genetic code of the Great White Way, and who doesn’t like to be razzle-dazzled? Upcoming musicals like Disney’s “Aladdin,” “Houdini” (starring Hugh Jackman) and the boxing fable “Rocky” won’t come cheap and will likely pack some flash.
But it’s refreshing to see top stage artists achieve more with a little less:
“After Midnight” (Brooks Atkinson Theatre)
Black musicals began enchanting Broadway audiences with such early hits as 1921’s “Shuffle Along.” And in every decade, another revue drawing from the deep well of African-American popular music and dance seems to arrive, and thrive.
The Duke Ellington songbook has been tapped for the shows “Sophisticated Ladies” and “Play On!” But he penned some 3,000 tunes, and this sneaky hit doesn’t just stick to his standards. With a sweet lift from poetic musings by Langston Hughes, “After Midnight” invites us into a re-imagined version of Harlem’s 1930s musical mecca, the Cotton Club. A rousing, 90-minute party of jazzy bliss is ensured, pronto, by the onstage big band the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, hand-picked by show co-producer Wynton Marsalis.
These champ players dispatch furiously swinging and sultry numbers, not only by Ellington (“Creole Love Call,” “Daybreak Express”)
but Cab Calloway (“Zah Zuh Zaz”), Sippie Wallace (“Women Be Wise”) et al.
More pluses are glossy retro-glam duds, swell singers including “American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino, a smooth emcee (Dulé Hill of TV’s “Psych”), and a heap of dance talent executing director Warren Carlyle’s vivacious choreography.
As Duke once said, “If it sounds good and feels good, then it IS good!”
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” (Walter Kerr Theatre)
Turning the 1907 Roy Horniman novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” into a scenically compact, wickedly entertaining tuner, calls for a big wink and an enthusiastic nod.
Infusing the satirical tale of serial murder and double-crossing romance with literate flair reminiscent of “My Fair Lady,” writer-lyricist Robert L. Freedman and composer-lyricist Steven Lutvak prove again that whatever the Brits do well, Americans are better at turning into musicals.
Staged with exacting nimbleness by Darko Tresnjak, the show follows a charmingly coldblooded young man (the silky-smooth Bryce Pinkham) as he murders his way into a large fortune — motivated by class resentment and lucre lust.
The central gag here is that all eight members of the D’Ysquith clan whom he targets — men and women, twits and bullies — are portrayed, nimbly, by Tony winner Jefferson Mays. Mays’ many-faceted turn is just one delight. A modest-sized cast executes many, many comic flourishes in a show that stylishly gambols and frolics through two acts of jolly good (and nasty) fun.
“Fun Home” (Public Theater)
The sole set for this offbeat Public Theater musical is part New York artist’s studio, part restored Midwestern Victorian home. They are occupied in interwoven time by three different Alison Bechdels — the tomboy, the insecure college kid coming out as a lesbian and the adult artist, whose coming-of-age story makes for gripping theater, as adapted by Lisa Kron and set to potent music by Jeanine Tesori.
Like her best-selling graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” the musical depicts growing up in a home with a very large elephant in the antique-filled parlor: a father’s furtive homosexuality, a family secret to all but his weary wife.
Brilliantly portrayed by Michael Cerveris, Alison’s mercurial dad is here a magnetic, complex figure — a compulsive and gifted man who both loved and bullied his children, and whose mental torment did not come from sexual oppression alone.
Though a tale of dysfunction and suicide could be relentlessly grim, “Fun Home” is not. It gently mocks ’60s kid culture, as it honors the quest to define oneself in the wake of a parent’s tragedy. (Through Jan. 12.)
“Little Miss Sunshine” (Second Stage)
The depth and candor that mark “Fun Home” are scarce in this small-scaled new tuner at Off Broadway’s Second Stage. The show’s quirky-clan road trip to a children’s beauty pageant is based on the same-titled hit 2006 film. Yet despite deft staging by writer-director James Lapine on a clever road map set, and a score by the estimable William Finn (“Falsettos”), the contrivances, tiresome trash-talk and glib sentimentality of the source material persist. At just 105 minutes, this often feels like one long drive through intergenerational squabbling. (Through Dec. 15.)
“Twelfth Night” (Belasco Theatre)
On an Elizabethan wood-paneled, candlelit set, peopled by an early music band and an all-male cast wearing Renaissance finery, this sparkling revel from London’s Globe Theatre has a tremendous leading “lady” in the great Mark Rylance. As lovesick Countess Olivia, the ever-inventive Rylance is by turns regal and petulant, fluttery and still, as she/he pursues Viola (poignant Samuel Barnett, a guy playing a girl playing a guy) whose love interest lies elsewhere. This show plays in Rep on Broadway with “Richard III,” also starring Rylance. (Through Feb. 16, 2014.)
“The Jacksonian” (Acorn Theatre)
Southern Gothic meets noir and more family dysfunction in Beth Henley’s disappointing new one-act, a New Group hit on the strength of a starry and capable cast.
This pretentious potboiler stirs a sordid brew of murder, child abuse, white trash and dentistry. Henley (“Crimes of the Heart”) seems more interested in shock and gross-out effects than in mining suspense or insight into the twisted psyches of a “Twin Peaks”-esque bartender (Bill Pullman),
and of a troubled dentist (Ed Harris) who is holed up in a gloomy Jackson, Miss. and visited by his estranged, battered wife (Amy Madigan) and freaked-out daughter (Juliet Brett). Harris and Pullman manage to nuance their repulsive characters, but a backdrop of civil-rights-era strife fails to give the play a larger significance it’s reaching for. (Through Dec. 22.)
Misha Berson: email@example.com