Review: In August, Musicals Rule Broadway

August 31, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman

In Brief: Musicals dominate the New York stage in the summer. For sheer entertainment value, that's not a bad thing. Here are four of the biggest crowd-pleasers.

If you want to see a straight drama, don’t go to New York in August. Nearly all of this season’s most notable plays had closed by June or July, including Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, Denzel Washington in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and Andrew Garfield in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

Harry Hadden-Paton, Lauren Ambrose, Alan Corduner rejoice in ""My Fair Lady"

You could still see the all-star revival of Boys in the Band, but only until August 11 when it played its last performance.

Musicals keep Broadway humming in the sweltering days of late summer. Tourists want, no, demand them, and the New York theatergoers who support more thought-provoking offerings have fled the city’s frenetic rhythms for the relaxed vibes and fresher temperatures of the Jersey Shore, the Hamptons, or the Hudson River Valley.

Still, a quick trip to Manhattan in August to see four of this year’s musical hits did not disappoint. Indeed, each of these rousing productions delivered a multitude of pleasures, thanks to the superb stagecraft, superior acting, and inspired direction to be seen only on Broadway.

My Fair Lady

Though it’s long been a classic – with sparkling, indelible Lerner and Lowe songs and irresistible, idiosyncratic characters – My Fair Lady was never one of my personal favorites. I’ve changed my tune after seeing this marvelous Lincoln Center revival.

It’s stunning on every level, wildly entertaining, and something of a revelation, too. As imagined by director Bartlett Sher, the familiar rags-to-race-track story posits an unexpectedly rewarding contemporary take on material we thought we knew well, but perhaps didn’t.

There’s a decidedly feminist bent to the proceedings, exemplified by a much feistier than usual Eliza Doolittle and any number of politically mindful references, such as the inclusion of a line of sign-carrying suffragettes marching through one musical number.

There’s also a dramatic, provocative twist at the end that’s at odds with the way the musical has been presented for some 70 years. To my mind all of this works spectacularly well.

That is not to say that Sher has neglected the show’s beloved popular blandishments.

The glorious songs are staged energetically and sung beautifully, especially by Lauren Ambrose in a break out performance for an actress not known for her work in musical comedy. Ms. Ambrose delivers a no-nonsense Eliza Doolittle, determined to rise above her station, but not at any cost. She’s terrific, though at moments she gives the impression of working too hard at it. You can see the deliberateness of her acting a little too plainly.

There’s no such discernible effort to Harry Hadden-Paton’s imperious, hilarious, cranky Henry Higgins. He may be trying just as hard as Ms. Ambrose, but he doesn’t show it. The jokes and snarky admonitions flow naturally from him. He’s not so much giving a great performance as simply being Henry Higgins – inhabiting the role is the ultimate great performance for an actor. Mr. Hadden-Paton is funny, exuberant, cantankerous, and blissfully unaware all at once. We don’t see the gears at work here. He’s easily the best thing in a show filled with manifold pleasures large and small.

Alan Corduner is equally delightful as Colonel Pickering – making much more out of the role than is written on the page – and Diana Rigg is grand whenever on stage – too briefly! – as Higgins’ knowing mother. These are two veterans who bring authority and dignity to the production even in secondary roles.

Michael Yeargan’s lush scenic design deserves a special mention. While, as the old saying goes, you can’t whistle the sets, you sure can appreciate them when they’re as stunning as these. Mr. Yeargan’s designs take full advantage of the Beaumont’s cavernous, exceptionally deep stage house. When we first see Higgins’ two-story living room it’s so far at the back of the stage that it looks as if it’s being rolled in from New Jersey. By the time it’s finally in place, the effect has achieved an almost 3D-like quality.

Ted Sperling’s on-the-money 29-piece orchestra plays the score with the brio and elegance that it deserves. The sound comes across as full and natural. The music appears to be coming from the orchestra pit, or, in the case of the singers, from the stage, rather than from an array of speakers above and on the sides of the proscenium, as is so often the case. Sound designer Marc Salzberg is responsible for this fine result.

Unjustly ignored at the Tony Awards in May, this lavish, splendid Lincoln Center revival has received rapturous reviews. It lives up to every bit of the acclaim. I loved it so much that if, after the curtain call they had started the show all over again, I would have been very happy to sit through it a second time right then and there.

Once On This Island

The revival of Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s 1990 musical, now onstage at the Circle in the Square, isn’t the blockbuster production that My Fair Lady is. This gentle tale of unreciprocated love is, however, lively, lovely, and well worth your time.

The action takes place on a French West Indies island, ruled by four gods and inhabited by the simple peasants who pray to them. After a fierce storm, a childless couple (Kenita R. Miller and Boise Holmes) finds a little girl who’s been washed to the shore. They adopt her and live an uncomplicated, happy life on their island paradise.

Years later, during another storm, a car crashes. Ti Moune (a fetching Loren Lott), now a young woman, rescues the badly injured driver and nurses him back to health. They fall in love, or at least she falls hard for him.

Like Eliza Doolittle, the determined heroine of Once On This Island wants something out of life that she may not be able to get, or, rather, that the gods may not let her have.

She soon learns that the young man, Daniel (Isaac Powell), is the scion of a wealthy family that owns a fancy hotel on the other side of the island and that he’s engaged to young woman of his social class.

Ms. Ahren’s book treats the material as an enchanting but bittersweet fable with a chorus of gods and storytellers to comment on the action and a poignant, poetic resolution. Mr. Flaherty has contributed a charming Caribbean-inflected score, capably played by a five-piece band and handsomely sung by a gifted, energetic ensemble.

Michael Arden’s direction is sensitive and efficient: He brings the evening in at a crisp 90 minutes. It’s short and sweet, the perfect cooler for a warm summer night.

The Band’s Visit

Culture clash – along with the absence of culture altogether – is the general subject of The Band’s Visit.

The good-natured musical begins as a the members of a ceremonial police band from Egypt arrive in Israel to play at the opening of the Egyptian Cultural Center in Petah Tikvah, only to find that they’ve landed in the wrong town with a similar sounding name.

It’s not really a town at all. Rather, Bet Hatikva is a dreary, remote outpost in the middle of nowhere with just a few apartment buildings and a small, nondescript café run by the skeptical, blunt Dina (a winning Katrina Lenk).

There’s no hotel in Bet Hatikva, as the musicians learn after arriving on the last bus of the day. The next one doesn’t leave until the morning.

Dina’s a cynic, but one with a heart. She takes on the task of arranging lodgings for the band members with the town’s assorted residents, setting the stage for a night of awkward encounters, intimate confessions between strangers, and, ultimately, the acceptance that comes when the townsfolk and visitors alike realize that everyone is human after all.

It’s not a new theme, of course, but the playwright Itamar Moses and composer-lyricist David Yazbek wring plenty fresh resonance and gentle humor out of the quaint setting and the personal tribulations of the town’s inhabitants.

Lenk is memorable, particularly in her melancholic rendition of Omar Sharif in which she reveals to the bandleader Tewfiq her passion for the Egyptian movies and songs of the 1950s that she enjoyed when she was growing up. It’s a richly modulated performance that slowly works its way into your heart, not the kind of Broadway star turn that knocks you over the head.

Sasson Gabay is equally impressive as the repressed, reserved conductor who must finally come to terms with his past failures over a long night of the soul. The actor is reprising on stage the role he created in the wonderful 2007 Israeli movie on which this appealing, affecting musical is based.

Those who loved the film, as I did, won’t be disappointed in the current iteration, though it’s not as sharply funny as the movie. The wonderful Ronit Elkabetz played the role of Dina in the movie with more deadpan humor and surface toughness than Ms. Lenk.

Still, the musical offers plenty of its own pleasures, including Yazbek's soulful Middle Eastern-inspired score, exquisite, understated acting, and the hope, however tenuous in these stressful times, that we really can all get along.

Anastasia

I wasn’t eager to see the adaptation of Anastasia that opened on Broadway in 2017, but I’m glad I finally caught up with it. It’s light, but charming and thoroughly enjoyable, thanks mainly to several terrific supporting performances and an opulent, first rate production.

It’s a fanciful retelling of the story of the amnesiac teenage girl who claimed, in Paris in 1927, to be the sole surviving child of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II and the heir to the Romanov name and fortune.

The musical is a reworking of a 1997 Twentieth Century Fox animated film, also titled Anastasia, notable for introducing the Oscar-nominated pop hit “Journey to the Past.” That film was based on a 1956 Fox movie starring Ingrid Bergman as the girl, Yul Brynner as a con man who tried to pass her off as the real Anastasia, and Helen Hayes as her grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie.

The current version opens with a brief prologue. We see the glamorous life of the Romanovs before the Revolution and their assassination at the hands of the Bolsheviks. The story then flashes forward about ten years to the main plot, set in Paris, in which two con men arrange for Anya to meet the Dowager Empress in hopes of convincing her that the girl is the real thing.

And perhaps she is. The musical’s authors throw in enough small possibilities and coincidences to make the audience wonder if the girl’s story is true, or just an elaborate hoax. Anya herself doesn’t know either. She thinks she recalls dim images of her early royal life. Are they real or is it her imagination?

Stephen Flaherty’s score, Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics, and Terrence McNally’s book are generally cheerful but not especially memorable. They move the action along, from the dazzling palaces of pre-Revolution Russia to the swank nightclubs and gilded salons of Jazz Age Paris, with efficiency, if not inspiration.

On the other hand, the glitzy sets, by Alexander Dodge, vibrant projections, by Aaron Rhyne, and glittering lighting, by Donald Holder, provide considerable spectacle and wow factor. Score one for the design team.

The intended audience of teenage girls and young women may find all of this satisfactory, but at least some mature theatergoers will want more. They’re not likely to find it, however.

What the show lacks are charismatic leading performances from its two stars, Christy Altomare, as Anya/Anastasia, and Zach Adkins, as Dimitry, the earnest young con man who falls in love with her. They’re well trained actors with fine singing voices. They’re also a little lackluster. These are proficient but not the thrilling performances you would prefer.

It’s up to the outstanding supporting cast to take up the slack. Mary Beth Peil brings appreciated grace and warmth to the role of the Dowager Empress Marie. John Bolton delights whenever he’s on stage as the conniving but likeable Vlad Popov, the older con man out for a big score.

Vicki Lewis is equally terrific as Countess Lily, aide to and confidant of the Dowager Empress. The gifted comedienne appears only briefly in the first act, but more than makes up for it with two sensational big numbers in act two.

Thankfully, these three pros know how to please a Broadway audience out for a good time. It’s a joy to watch them, even if other elements in the show aren’t as satisfying as they might be.