BROADWAY – January 2017 

In a Broadway season stuffed to the gills with outstanding new musicals (unlike last year which was pretty much a one horse race thanks to Hamilton), Chazz Palminteri and Robert De Niro’s A BRONX TALE is unlikely to pick up many awards. However that won’t dent its appeal to locals and tourists alike, as it’s probably the most authentically “New York” homegrown hit since the about-to-finally-close Jersey Boys.

In fact, this show is hugely reminiscent of Jersey Boys in its recreation of 1950s/60s Americana and story of a good kid who gets mixed up with “The Mob”; there are elements of West Side Story, Hairspray, Memphis and even Saturday Night Fever in there too with its inter-racial love story and gang rivalries. The production features a number of JB B’way vets and even opens with a (wonderful) quartet of male singers harmonising under a street lamp. This show ticks all the boxes for a crowd pleasing night out, including a cute kid performer (who looked too uncomfortably like Pugsley Addams for my taste but the audience went mad for him.)

If the whole thing maybe feels a bit “by the numbers”, its biggest strength is Alan Menken’s rousing, ear-wormy(!) doo-wop score, I reckon easily his best since Little Shop à Of  Horrors. With the exception of Lin-Manuel Miranda, no other composer combines theatricality with pop as winningly as Menken does. I doubt that anybody who sees this won’t want the cast album. Song after song satisfyingly lands, so that any reservations about the cliche-ridden nature of the Book get pretty much swept away.

The cast are terrific too, and look like they stepped right off the lot of a 1950s gangster movie, ie all different shapes and sizes, and each one registering as a distinctive character. Plus the voices are thrillingly good. Richard H Blake as the hero’s honourable blue collar Dad, Nick Cordero as the local heavy and Ariana DeBose as the feisty but adorable love interest are all especially fine, but there genuinely is no weak link. The sheer energy of the ensemble is a wonder to behold. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography hits all the right notes, and Beowulf Boritt’s revolving tenement tower set -all fire escapes and metal balconies- is attractive, if maybe a little sanitised.

A BRONX TALE doesn’t reinvent the musical theatre wheel but then it isn’t trying to. A thoroughly enjoyable night out: in the words of one of the catchiest songs “I Like It” (very much actually). 

Meanwhile, any Broadway season that can boast either NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 or DEAR EVAN HANSEN is cause for rejoicing. The fact that 2016/7 features both is incredible, and will inevitably have Tony Awards voters scratching their heads. Both shows are fascinating, ambitious and highly original: musical theatre that pushes the boundaries of the art form. Seeing them back-to-back is almost an embarrassment of riches.

THE GREAT COMET is an exhilarating and intoxicating theatrical thrill ride in Rachel Chavkin’s immersive, endlessly inventive staging. Inspired by a small section of War & Peace, the production magically transforms the Imperial Theatre into a 19th Century Russian supper club, all red velvet and chandeliers, with walkways and performance platforms all over the house, plus a huge swathe of the audience on stage. The cast of actor-musicians redefine what musical theatre actors are now required to do: sing, dance, act, play instruments (“can you do the splits while playing the accordion? Marvellous, you’re in”), interact at close quarters with the audience, be sexy as hell, and generally exude a level of hipster coolness that would be annoying if they weren’t so damn adorable. 
Dave Malloy’s score (the show was billed in its original off-B’way run as an “electropop opera” and that is about as accurate as one can get, while still not really conveying the complex delight in store) matches the extraordinarily inventive staging: it’s playful, quirky, unexpected…. While it’s worth listening to a cast recording before seeing it, nothing prepares you for how astonishing it sounds ‘live’. There are moments of heart stopping beauty right up against rollicking ensemble numbers. Stunning.

In his Broadway debut, Josh Groban is a revelation as lovelorn, endlessly miserable Pierre. We all knew he could sing like an angel but he completely inhabits the role and more than holds his own even in a company this strong. Denee Benton as Natasha is terrific…..luminously beautiful, and with a soaring voice. Lucas Steele’s charismatic libertine and Amber Gray as his meddling, amoral sister also register very strongly in an insanely talented cast. Just when I feared the whole thing might be a slight case of style over substance (and blimey this show is stylish) the final ten minutes happened and I found myself weeping into my Playbill. The term “sensational” gets inaccurately bandied about a lot but in this instance the term could not be more accurate. I loved every minute of it, and actually couldn’t compare it to anything else that I’ve ever seen. A true original. I would see it again in a heartbeat.

That is also true of DEAR EVAN HANSEN, although I’m not sure I could emotionally cope with it for a week or two (oh who am I kidding, I would mug somebody for a ticket to today’s matinee). At one point in the second half I turned to Pamela McMahon Miller and said (sobbed) “I’m not sure I can cope with much more of this” and yet I never wanted it to end. This beautifully wrought, witty, emotionally devastating tale of family, belonging, peer pressure, the sheer bloody awfulness of growing up and not fitting in is a bona fide knockout.
Pasek and Paul’s soaring, pop-inflected score is as haunting as it is thrilling. Am literally counting down the days until the cast album comes out. Michael Greif’s masterly staging is appropriately high tech but never threatens to overwhelm the human elements at the core of this simple but compelling story. More than any musical I’ve ever seen, this one has a script (by Steven Levenson, and let’s just give him the damn Tony now shall we) that plays perfectly fine on its own without the songs. The characters are complex, relatable, real, in ways that you don’t necessarily see in musicals outside of Sondheim. I was on the edge of my seat for most of it and it was fascinating to note that there where moments when you could have heard a pin drop in a packed house, apart from a few stifled sobs (yes that might have been me. Shut up). The songs would feel superfluous if they weren’t so damn good, adding another dimension to an already extraordinarily rich and rewarding confection.

Ben Platt as Evan delivers one of the most stunning performances I have ever seen. He is lovable even as he is toe-curling: fully inhabiting the character’s neurosis, anxiety and desperation, so real as to be almost painful to watch. Vocally he is stunning too……the anthemic, galvanising ‘Waving Through A Window’ sounds even more terrific live than it does on the recording. Quite how he is doing this 8 times a week is beyond me. People will be talking about this star-making turn decades from now. Despite all that, the writing is so good that there are, I’m sure, other ways to play this complex, fascinating character which should ensure this piece’s longevity long after Platt has moved on. 

The rest of the company are at his level, which is no mean feat. Rachel Bay Jones as his stressed, over worked, bewildered mother is like a walking heart….you find yourself rooting for her even as you wince at some of her life choices. A beautiful performance. Equally fine is Laura Dreyfus as the object of Evan’s affection…she captures perfectly the unintentionally funny combination of stroppiness, bravado and uncertainty of a teenager. She’s a star-in-the-making. Every cast member is at the top of their game. Jennifer Laura Thompson is especially wonderful as Dreyfus’ heartbroken Mom. This may just be the best acted musical I have ever seen.

I haven’t uglycried like this at a show since the original Our House or possibly Blood Brothers, and I staggered out of the theatre an exhilarated, emotional mess. If you like wandering round Manhattan (or the West End, which I would hope is inevitable) looking like you’ve been punched in the face while pathetically grabbing at superlatives, then this is the show for you. Absolutely bloody wonderful. Worth the price of a transatlantic air fare alone, quite frankly.

Not a dry eye in the house either in the auditorium or on the stage at the final performance of William Finn’s FALSETTOS on January 8th and with good reason: this revival, directed magnificently by author James Lapine who also staged the long running original in the 90s, was utter perfection.

I don’t ever expect to see this shimmeringly gorgeous, heartcatchingly beautiful score as well performed as it was today. In the central role of bisexual Marvin -who leaves his wife and child for a (male) family friend and goes on to learn some hard lessons about love, family and who’s really there for you in life- Broadway favorite Christian Borle restrains his usual scenery chewing tendencies and delivers a performance of outstanding charm and delicacy. Even as his behaviour is frequently less than honourable you still find yourself caring about him. Andrew Rannells as boyfriend Whizzer is equally superb: all pretty boy posturing in the first half then deeply affecting in the second when struck down with AIDS. 
The real revelations here though are Stephanie J Block as Marvin’s hilariously but touchingly neurotic ex-wife, and Brandon Uranowitz, completely adorable as the less-screwed-up-than-he-initially-looks family psychiatrist who’s in love with her. Both roles could so easily descend into caricature but these fine actors ensure they are relatable human beings suddenly thrust into the middle of a familial crisis neither of them saw coming. If these two don’t get Tony nominations there’s no justice. Block has the comic highlight of the evening with her first act tour-de-force ‘I’m Breaking Down’ where she hysterically (and slightly alarmingly) does just that, ending the number waving a carving knife around while belting through a mouthful of banana. She got a mid-act standing O for that. Her rendition of the thrilling act two ballad ‘Holding To The Ground’ (“keeping up my head, as my heart falls out of sight”) is spine tingling, a memorable moment in a production full of them. Anthony Rosenthal is a wonder as Jason, Marvin and Trina’s precociously smart but unexpectedly kind young son. At times the most mature character on the stage, Jason needs to be a smart ass but you have to love him……Rosenthal gets it absolutely right. 
Although they have slightly less to work with, Tracy Thoms and Betsy Wolfe are glorious as “the lesbians from next door”, one a feisty doctor bewildered by the looming AIDS crisis and the other a daffy chef bewildered by pretty much everything. I adored them.

I adored everything about the entire show actually. David Rockwell’s building blocks set (against a Manhattan skyline background complete with the WTC Twin Towers) commands the attention as the actors put together and then demolish the differing locales, as if suggesting that we remain playful but destructive children even into adulthood. The emotional pay off comes at the very end when a single block chillingly becomes Whizzer’s tombstone while the rest of the cast group hug weeping pitifully…..for a piece that is smart as a whip for the most part it sure isn’t afraid to wear it’s heart on its sleeve where necessary. It was devastating.
I do wonder if it might feel a bit too New York-centric for London, hence no production since the flop staging of March Of The Falsettos (basically the first act) back in the 1983. This delightful, deeply moving gem would play a treat at somewhere like the Menier Chocolate Factory or Southwark Playhouse, although I doubt any cast could match this one.
Although this limited run is now over, a cast album has been recorded and the production has been filmed. Do not miss either of them.

I was very moved indeed by Falsettos, if not quite the basket case I was after Evan Hansen. That may have been due in part to the woman sitting on the other side of Pam who wasn’t so much sobbing as convulsing in time to music, and not even at only the sad parts. As Pam so caringly put it at intermission “I think this woman needs a DOCTOR or something. At least YOU weren’t ANNOYING yesterday.” Always reassuring to hear 🙂

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