Review: Starry Nights On Broadway

March 23, 2017 | By Bruce R. Feldman

When top talent shines, theatrical magic is the reward

If the main reason you go to the theater is to see big stars in plays and musicals, then drop everything and book a trip to New York right away.

Celebrity is having a major moment on Broadway this spring. Jake Gyllenhaal, Danny Devito, Glenn Close, Josh Groban and Patti Lupone are among the top talent on display there. All you need is money. Tickets range from $250 to $400 for the best orchestra seats – if any are available, that is. These are the box-office prices. You’ll pay more from a broker or an online site like StubHub.

When movie and TV stars attempt Broadway, results can be middling, or worse. One thing is clear: there’d be a less vigorous New York theater scene without them.

The good news this season is that the current cluster of shows starring popular performers will please both those who prefer their theater with a liberal dose of luminaries and serious playgoers who demand something more substantial.

Three superb new productions demonstrate the heights that can be achieved when the marriage of big or small screen talent with first-class direction and production clicks on all cylinders.

Sunday In The Park With George

Movie star Jake Gyllenhaal is the draw for this gratifying revival of Stephen Sondehim and George Lapine’s 1983 chamber musical set in the art world.

The performer – who has done fine work in indie and major studio films, notably Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and, recently, Tom Ford's noirish Nocturnal Animals – has got the acting chops to do justice to Lapine's impressionist portrait of the 19th-Century painter Georges Seurat. But can he sing? You bet. In fact, he can knock it out of the park. His full, rich baritone lends authority to Sondheim's endlessly engaging lyrics and music. That's no small feat. Few performers are up to the multiple shadings, ironies, and complexities of a Sondheim score.

Gylllenhaal delivers an intuitive portrait of an artist who has no problem understanding order, tension, balance and harmony in his painting, but struggles to connect with the real people and conflicting emotions in his life. The star is affecting, but is not the only terrific thing in the show. Everything about this production is sublime, including the captivating female lead, Annaleigh Ashford.

Can Jake Gyllenhaal sing? You bet. In fact, he can knock it out of the park.

The first act of Lapine’s play takes place in France in the 1880s, the second act in at an art installation opening in Texas 100 years later. Both Lapine’s writing and Sondheim’s lyrics are alternately funny, inventive, ironic and angst-ridden, as they comment on the role of art in society and the private and public fears of those who create art.

The show is in a limited run through April 23 at the intimate Hudson Theater, which opened in 1903 and has been recently restored to its former glory after lying vacant for many years. You want stars and great theater in one package? This marvelous production delivers both.

The Price

The new revival of Arthur Miller’s engrossing 1968 drama boasts not one, but a trio of popular talents. Hollywood’s Mark Ruffalo and television’s Danny DeVito and Tony Shaloub are equally excellent in Miller’s uncompromising story of two estranged brothers coping with their father’s death and their own unsettled relationship.

Danny DeVito is particularly impressive as the geezer of an antiques appraiser called in to evaluate the father’s collection of motley furniture and bric-a-brac. It’s a fully formed characterization – droll, curious, almost Dickensian, yet convincing, filled with multiple pleasures and far removed from the comedy shtick he’s known for on TV in Taxi and in big screen fare like Junior and Throw Mama From the Train.

As terrific as Devito is, the play’s not about him, though. Miller’s builds his morality tale around the uncomfortable dynamics between Ruffalo, the brother who wanted to be a scientist but quit college to take a steady job as a police officer, and Shaloub, the seemingly compassionless brother who achieved his dreams by becoming a successful surgeon. Both actors are effective. And so is Jessica Hecht who plays Ruffalo’s frustrated wife.

The play itself is a psychological drama whose characters are forced to confront family secrets and long simmering resentments and to consider whether or not the price they’ve paid for their life choices has been too high. Miller doesn’t favor or condemn either brother. He doesn’t take sides, leaving it up to the audience to decide whether the choices were worth it.

The Price runs at the American Airlines Theater on 42nd St. until May 7.

War Paint

There was a time when Broadway stars were household names. (Think Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady or Mary Martin in South Pacific.) That was then.

We still have stage stars, though, even if primarily New York theatergoers go gaga over them, rather than national movie or TV audiences. You can catch two of the greatest stage divas, Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole, in the new musical War Paint.

They are the main reason to see this play about the 30-year rivalry between beauty doyennes Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. It’s an unlikely subject for a musical, and, ultimately, it doesn’t succeed as well as it might. The Scott Frankel-Michael Korie score is dramatic and thoughtful, but not really memorable. You don’t leave the theatre humming any of it.

But those performances from Lupone and Ebersole are sheer theatrical magic. They elevate a good, not great score and book. They know now to grab the audience and sell a song. It’s Old School Broadway and something to see, all right.

Celebrity is having a major moment on Broadway this spring.

Kudos also go to the stylish sets and artful lighting. They contribute mightily to creating a world of glamor and sophistication that spans three decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s.

What the show will be like without the two dynamos who light up the stage every night is anybody’s guess. Catch it right now and you won’t be disappointed.

War Paint is at the Nederlander Theater on 41st Street.

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