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Broadway Roundup

June 11, 2009 By: Jena Tesse Fox


The Tony Awards brought the Broadway season to a close this past week, giving some much-needed exposure to a struggling industry that largely thrives on tourists. Sure, visitors to New York City will always flock to The Phantom of the Opera and Mamma Mia!, but numerous other shows opened this season that deserve their attention as well.

The big winner this year was Elton John’s musical version of the 2000 film Billy Elliot, a heartwarming story about a blue-collar boy’s struggles to be accepted as a ballet dancer, set against the backdrop of the 1984 coal strike in Northern England. The show is a crowd-pleaser, to be sure: It has cute kids, lots of dancing and Elton John songs. (Though, really, would Manchester coal miners in 1984 be listening to Elton John music? "Nor time nor place did then adhere," as Shakespeare might complain.) The three teenagers who alternate the titular role became the first actors to share a Tony Award among them (joint nominations are very rare), and Broadway stalwart Gregory Jbara won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his powerful turn as Billy’s conflicted father. Stephen Daldry, who also directed the movie, won the Tony for his direction of the musical.

Lee Hall’s book to Billy Elliot also took home a Tony, but his lyrics, and Elton John’s music, did not. That honor went to the dark-horse hit Next to Normal, which started out as part of the New York Musical Theater Festival several years back and has been workshopped and finessed since. After a hit run off-Broadway last year and an out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C., the show finally made it to Broadway this season, proving that musicals don’t need to be based on a movie or written by rock stars to be successful. The show, a powerful and surprisingly humorous study of a family dealing with mental illness and grief, may not seem like obvious subject matter for a musical, but Tom Kitt’s driving rock score and Brian Yorkey’s sharp book and lyrics make it work by pure skill and force of will. Even people who don’t like rock music (ahem, my folks) have said that they would return to see this show again. Alice Ripley, playing a bipolar mother struggling to take care of her family, won the Tony award for Best Actress in a Musical for her career-defining performance.

TV and film fans will certainly want to catch Yazmina Reza’s new play God of Carnage, which stars Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden, Emmy-winner James Gandolfini and Golden Globe-nominees Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. All four actors received Tony nominations for their work in the play, with Harden winning, and Reza’s script, a study of parents who are more childish than their children, won the Tony for Best Play. While the satire in the play is sharp and much of the writing darkly humorous, it does beg a rather nagging question: Why is it that if James Gandolfini were to strike Marcia Gay Harden in a play, the audience would be horrified, but when she hits him in this play, it’s played for laughs? (Granted, the entire point of the satire is the savagery of supposedly civilized people, but several people have commented on the dichotomy. Discuss amongst yourselves.)

It’s unlikely that your clients will get a chance to see the revival of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist masterpiece Exit the King, which stars Oscar-winners Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon, as the play will end its limited run on June 14. If they’re up to the challenge of Ionesco’s bizarre and hilarious analysis of death and dying, they’ll find a true treat in Rush’s Tony-winning performance as the 400-year-old King Berenger. Theater fans with great stamina will want to take on the revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, an epic three-play cycle about one weekend in a country estate. Each play takes place in a different room of the house over the weekend, giving the audience the perspective of a fly on a wall (or, more accurately, a cat in a tree) as three couples lie, cheat and hilariously bicker. The show won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play, and the three plays can be enjoyed in any order (although attending a Saturday marathon, with the first play beginning at 11:30 a.m., the second at 3:30 p.m., and the last at 8 p.m., is probably best for those who can handle that much time in a theater).

The revival of West Side Story gives audiences a chance to see Jerome Robbins’ legendary choreography and hear that terrific Bernstein/Sondheim score, but the production itself feels, well, like it was directed by a 91-year-old man unwilling to let his baby grow up. Arthur Laurents, the show’s original bookwriter, does indeed serve as director this time around, and allowed several Shark scenes to be translated into Spanish by last year’s Tony-winning wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Ideally, the inclusion of Spanish would make the show more realistic, but Laurents did not allow his characters to curse any more now than they did in 1957, so your mileage may vary in terms of verisimilitude.) While the Spanish is not terribly distracting (and is, in fact, quite clever in places), some clients may be annoyed if they cannot follow the songs. Karen Olivo’s fierce performance as Anita, however, is excellent, and earned her a well-deserved Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

The strongest revival of the season, hands down, is the vibrant and powerful return of Hair, James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermott’s ode to flower power and counter-culture revolution. Previous revivals have faltered and failed, possibly because the country's mood had pulled a 180 from the tumult of the late 1960s. With the combination of war-weariness and hopeful optimism sweeping the country, the time has never been riper for this show, and this energetic revival, which won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, does not disappoint. Parents may not want to expose (heh…) their kids to the much-hyped nudity in the show, but the scene is brief and decidedly non-sexual. Hair can be a great gateway for parents to discuss the ‘60s and the counter-culture movement with their kids. (If you’re booking tickets for your clients, make sure you get them orchestra seats so they can interact with the cast members who frequently walk through the audience.)  

The best play in New York this year was not, however, on Broadway at all, and shows little sign of transferring there. Ruined, which won the Drama Desk Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a horrifying depiction of the lives of (literally) battle-scarred women in the Congo. The play opened for a limited engagement at the off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club over the winter, and has been regularly extended ever since. It is not an easy pill to swallow, but the play is one of the most haunting and powerful productions in recent memory, and should not be missed by any theatrically minded visitor to the city.

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