By Seth Reines, June 2018 Web Exclusive.
Every spring my partner and I take an annual pre-Tony pilgrimage to New York to catch up on Broadway’s latest fare. This year, we saw six musicals – two that opened in 2017 and four new shows that will be vying for this year’s Tonys.
We began with 2017’s Come From Away, our number one “must-see” choice, and Anastasia.
1. Come From Away
Come From Away, a touching piece that is still selling out on Broadway, is based on the true story of the isolated community of Gander, Newfoundland. What started as an average day in the small town turned into an international sleep-over when 38 planes, carrying thousands of people from across the globe, were diverted to Gander’s air strip on Sept. 11, 2001. Undaunted by culture clashes and language barriers, the people of Gander embraced the shaken travelers with music, an open bar and the recognition that we’re all part of a global family.
Come From Away went into the 2017 Tony Awards with seven nominations, including a nod for Best Musical. The show’s director Christopher Ashley deservedly took home the award for Best Director for his imaginative minimalist staging, but the show was shut out in all other categories by Dear Evan Hansen, 2017’s big winner that earned six awards.
We’ve tried to get tickets to Dear Evan Hansen on both our 2017 and 2018 Broadway trips, but the show has been virtually sold out since its opening in 2017. Luckily, Gammage will be bringing the show’s first national tour to the Valley Nov. 27-Dec. 2. It will be interesting to see how Dear Evan Hansen bested Come From Away, which is one of the most moving theatrical experiences in seasons.
Our second 2017 show was the lavish, though predictable. Anastasia. Based on the 1997 animated film that proved popular among tween girls – the same audience that’s kept Wicked playing to packed houses on Broadway for 15 years.
The “Journey to the Past” musical boasts a rich score by Tony Award-winners Flaherty and Ahrens, whose Once on This Island revival is also playing on Broadway. But the true stars of the show are the Romanov-inspired Imperial costumes and elegant video-based sets, which transport the audience from Saint Petersburg with swirling ghosts to a speeding train to a cherry-blossom-filled Parisian park. Unfortunately, the show is 30 minutes too long and bogged down by a “Disney princess” fairytale book.
3. My Fair Lady
Next, we were overwhelmed by Lincoln Center’s visually stunning revival of Lerner and Loewe’s beloved 1956 classic My Fair Lady.
Imaginatively re-conceived by Tony Award-winner Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, The King and I), the cast features “Six Feet Under” star Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle, the role that catapulted Julie Andrews to stardom. Harry Hadden-Paton of “Downton Abbey” and “Crown” takes up Rex Harrison’s gauntlet as Henry Higgins with Tony Award- winner Norman Leo Butz as Alfie Doolittle and Dame Diana Rigg as Henry’s upper-class mother.
This Fair Lady is one of two current Broadway revivals confronted by the #MeToo Era. In the past, Eliza was the victim of a misogynistic professor of phonetics and an opportunistic father. But in Sher’s brilliant re-staging, it is Henry not Eliza who is transformed. Spoiler Alert: In this more politically correct battle of the sexes, Eliza emerges the victor.
My Fair Lady will probably vie with the current revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1948 classic Carousel for 2018’s Tony for Best Musical Revival.
Carousel remains a dark tale of a brooding carnival barker who is drawn into an ill-fated relationship with a mill worker in turn-of-the century New England. While director Jack O’Brien is obviously aware of the corrosive effects of toxic masculinity, this Carousel doesn’t attempt to put a new spin on this tale of spousal abuse and redemption.
But this Carousel is brilliantly sung by Hamilton alum Joshua Henry, Beautiful’s Tony-winning Jessie Mueller, opera diva Renee Fleming, and Wicked ‘s brilliant Lindsey Mendez in the role that won Audra McDonald her first of six Tony awards in 1994. Robust choreography by the New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck and ballet dancer Amar Ramasur’s sexy bad-boy makes this new Carousel worth the ride.
Wrapping up our six-show Broadway adventure were two new musicals that will be eligible for Tony’s Best Musical this season: Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and The Band Visit.
The jukebox musical Summer, told through the dramatic lens of her final concert, attempts to present the complexities and conflicts the famed songwriter/singer with three actresses playing the title role. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the star LaChanze to see if the conceit works.
Summer reunites Jersey Boys’ director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo. With three Donnas belting over 20 disco hits, the glitzy show, unfortunately, lacks Jersey Boy’s passable book and heart.
At one gratuitous moment, one of the Donnas turns to the audience and apologizes for having uttered the conservative Christian slogan “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” during one of her concerts. At 90-minutes, and no-intermission, Summer tries too hard to be a meaningful piece of musical theatre and would fare better on the Vegas stage.
Fair warning: Like Summer, Broadway-bound The Cher Show, currently in Chicago, also has a triumvirate of Chers. At least that show will have gowns by Bob Mackie!
6.The Band’s Visit
Finally, we caught The Band’s Visit, also a 90 minute, no-intermission show. (Is this a trend?) Based on the 2007 Israeli film, not much happens in the show — a travel mix-up strands a group of Egyptian musicians in a remote Israeli village where the locals take them in for the night. (Sounds a bit like Come From Away, but with an entirely unique sound.)
Their lives intertwine in what The New York Times calls “one of the most ravishing musicals ever.” Not sure I’d go that far, but The Band’s Visit does feature a versatile cast of actors/musicians and a Tony-worthy performance by Katrina Lenk.
So, back to the Tony’s, the reason we make this annual visit to the Great White Way. Far from the bright lights of Broadway, we’ll see who the 2018 winners are as Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles host the 72nd annual Tony Awards on June 10.