Quick takes on theater productions of “An American in Paris,” “Something Rotten!,” “The King and I” and more.
New York, N.Y. — Just when you think Broadway is all about revivals, homages to pop stars, and prime British fare, some faith will be restored in the Great White Way as more than an import house or a commercial-theater mall.
Unformulaic rough magic can, and does, still happen there.
On my recent round of Manhattan reviewing, crowds were lining up for three substantial and new Tony Award-nominated Broadway musicals that look like keepers — “An American in Paris”; “Something Rotten!” (which bypassed a planned Seattle premiere to head straight to Broadway); and “Fun Home,” the searing coming-of-age musical by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori that caused a sensation last year Off Broadway.
Of course those Brits, whose major nonprofit companies are better subsidized than our own, are throwing it down this season, too. Their mind-popping “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is favored to win a best play Tony, honoring Broadway excellence. Royal Shakespeare Company’s two-part adaptation of the Hilary Mantel novel “Wolf Hall” also got a nod. So did, along with other English thesps, Dame Helen Mirren in “The Audience.”
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Here are critical snapshots of five notable shows that opened on Broadway this spring (mainly musicals which we’ll likely see in Seattle in the future). Together they racked up a total of 43 Tony nominations, most of them richly deserved. (The Tony Awards telecast airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS; find my predictions here.)
“An American in Paris” (Palace Theatre)
The odds of transforming a beloved movie into a grand Broadway musical are slim — consider the 2014-15 box office flops “Honeymoon in Vegas” and “Dr. Zhivago.” But they rise exponentially when you have a Gershwin score, esteemed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon as director, and when the star is a thrilling New York City Ballet dancer who idolizes Gene Kelly.
The intriguing Craig Lucas adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1951 movie with Kelly and Leslie Caron changes up parts of the screen story, and folds in more grit and gravitas.
Paris just after World War II isn’t always Technicolor-sunny and brimming with joie de vivre here. Jerry (the remarkable Robert Fairchild) is still an ex-G.I. painter, but fellow war vet and sardonic sidekick Adam (Brandon Uranowitz) now has signs of PTSD. And Jerry’s other male rival for a winsome ballerina might be a closet case.
Most of this flies. What’s spectacular in the makeover (which, apropos, debuted last year in Paris) is how the show dances us with cinematic fluidity through Jerry’s Seine-side escapades — and how Bob Crowley’s stunning array of sets and projections dance with the dancers, evoking the City of Light in many moods.
And the movers are magnifique. As love interest Lise, Leanne Cope is an exquisite dancer (a principal in London’s Royal Ballet), with waifish allure and a pert Caron haircut.
Fairchild is no ringer for Kelly, just boyishly handsome in his own way and an exuberant triple-threat. He heartily sings the Gershwin songs, clowns and makes romantic, blending cheery charm with elegant athleticism. (His tours jetés and dance chemistry with Cope are sublime.)
What a great Broadway debut for Fairchild, in the splashiest musical of the season. (If Hollywood comes calling, maybe he can take up on film where Kelly left off.)
A New York Times pan is not always the kiss of death.
It didn’t sink this raffish, inviting romp packed with broad shtick dating back to Elizabethan times, shameless English lit puns and bravura turns by (among others) Christopher Borle (“Smash”), outdoing himself as a plagiarizing rock-god Shakespeare. (Borle says his models were “Mick Jagger, Prince and Britney Spears.”)
Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, the brothers who conceived and co-created the show (with co-writer John O’Farrell), are brazen filches also — borrowing from the Monty Python school of broad history-fueled yuks, the Bard’s canon and “The Producers,” for starters.
The shamelessly silly plot concerns the desperate attempts of a sibling theater duo (Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani) to drum up a hit, and snatch some of the glory showering Borle’s deliciously obnoxious Shakespeare.
The result is the first Broadway-ish musical, “Omelette,” which maybe inspires a certain famous tragedy set in Denmark.
“Something Rotten!” is relentlessly antic under Casey Nicholaw’s direction, with hamming (and egging) galore. The premise gets overworked, the score is pleasantly innocuous, some jokes are lame. But how can you snub a crowd-pleaser that gleefully references Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, and features tap-dancing eggs?
To Seattleites disappointed it didn’t premiere at 5th Avenue Theatre as originally planned: sit tight for the national tour.
“The King and I” (Lincoln Center Theatre)
Former Intiman Theatre artistic director Bartlett Sher’s staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s prescient cross-cultural musical is thoughtful and beautifully designed, well deserving of its best revival Tony nod.
Kelli O’Hara glides into the role of the Victorian-era British tutor Anna, hired by the King of Siam to teach and enlighten his brood of adorable children. Anna’s culture shock is profound, as she tangles with a forward-thinking monarch over his more antiquated edicts (like prone-body bowing). But their East-West attraction is palpable, though it goes no further than a vigorous waltz (“Shall We Dance?”).
Charismatic Japanese film star Ken Watanabe (“Letters From Iwo Jima”) plays the king in thickly accented English. He’s hard to comprehend at times. He also risks performing the role in a vigorously expressive style that at its most extreme brings to mind Kabuki theater.
I warmed to Watanabe, and admired his daring in a part forever linked to a scowling Yul Brynner. And I appreciated the way O’Hara, ever the artful leading lady, pulled back to give her co-star ample room to maneuver. Both she and Watanabe won Tony nominations, as did the marvelous Ruthie Ann Miles as the King’s wise head wife.
“Hand to God” (Booth Theatre)
I won’t be coy here: I am sick to death of puppet sex.
There’s plenty of it, in this Tony-nominated new play that crassly crosses “Avenue Q” with “Jekyll and Hyde” with mental-illness melodrama and devil worship.
Many critics and theater patrons are finding Robert Askins’ genre-hopping Tony nominee hilarious. Hate to be a killjoy, but I found it contrived and glib, derivative and queasy-making.
The satirical targets are overly familiar. So are the grotesquely etched rube characters orbiting around a schizoid adolescent puppeteer, Jason (a deft double performance by Steven Boyer). Jason’s widowed mother is a horny cougar. The square family pastor (Marc Kudisch, doing his best to humanize the role) is another style of lech. The archetypal fellow teens in Jason’s church puppet-club class? A zoned-out, sex-crazed slacker boy and a smart, deadpan potential girlfriend.
I wish the thick coating of snark and exaggeration made me laugh more. But as Jason’s jiving alter-ego sock puppet takes over, urging him on to do increasingly gruesome things and require pronto psychiatric treatment, “Hand to God” amused me less and less — and failed to move me, when it tried.
My reaction may have to do with a generation humor gap. But compared to the cheap laughs in “Hand to God,” the satirical, profane snark in “South Park” is endearing.
“Skylight” (John Golden Theatre)
Leading British dramatist David Hare gives good reasons to both empathize and argue with the complicated people who populate this articulate 1990s drama.
As former lovers Tom and Kyra, two brilliant lead actors (Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan) match wits, furiously spar, draw closer, share regrets, pull away.
Known here for his comic deftness in films like “Love, Actually,” Nighy is a deeply committed live performer. He tears sharply yet soulfully into the role of a recently widowed restaurant mogul, who drops in unexpectedly on the estranged Kyra.
Tom is a bitterly unapologetic capitalist. Kyra has become a radicalized teacher in a London slum.
Mulligan goes toe-to-toe with Nighy during an intense, witty and bittersweet encounter, while making a fragrant spaghetti dinner onstage — as the play stirs up grief, romance, politics.
Can Tom persuade Kyra to abandon her mission for an upscale life with him? Can she get him to understand the idealistic choices she’s made?
It is not a winnable debate, but it is scintillating theater.