New York City — The theatrical miracle that is Hamilton may be sold out for the foreseeable future, but as I learned during a recent week in New York City, many outstanding productions and performers are still there for the appreciating, with seats to spare. Here are just a few:
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Here’s a recipe: Take a popular cult-ish film comedy, add music and lyrics by an award-winning pop singer/composer, and enlist a Tony Award-winning actress. Blend together—almost like baking a pie, isn’t it?
Waitress, with words and music by Sara Bareilles, directed by Diane Paulus and starring Jesse Mueller, is currently delighting audiences at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Based on the 2007 film written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly, it tells of Jenna, a sweet-natured master baker working at a Southern “pie diner” who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant via her abusive husband. While Jenna wrestles with her fate, she falls into a brief affair with her obstetrician, but ultimately finds the strength to do what needs to be done for herself and her child.
The story offers humor and pathos surrounded by Bareilles’ pop-tinged numbers, though none of the latter is particularly memorable, in my opinion. With one possible exception—Jessie Mueller’s 11 o’clock number, the power balled “She Used to Be Mine,” offers this performer a true vocal tour de force, and in her confident hands, it becomes a standing ovation-worthy moment.
Mueller is an excellent singer and actress, and admirably embodies Jenna’s mélange of sweetness and strength. I hope she tackles a “classic” Broadway role someday—Sarah Brown from Guys and Dolls, perhaps? It would be worth waiting for.
What further distinguishes this production is an outstanding supporting cast, including Keala Settle and Kimiko Glenn as Jenna’s fellow waitresses; Dakin Matthews as the irascible diner owner and Jenna’s ultimate benefactor; Christopher Fitzgerald as Glenn’s idiosyncratic suitor; Drew Gehling as Jenna’s charmingly awkward medical paramour; and ensemble member Charity Angel Dawson as the obstetrician’s eagle-eyed nurse. They all have fine solo moments while contributing admirably to the show’s overall joy and positivity.
Waitress’ ingredients are all thankfully non-caloric, but nonetheless pretty much guaranteed to satisfy.
While it’s always a joy to see musical theater classics resurrected for younger generations, as this past season alone has demonstrated, Broadway also craves new material. Thanks to Steve Martin and Edie Brickell (graduate of Dallas’s Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts), we now also have Bright Star, a unique and charming musical treat, directed by Walter Bobbie and currently playing at the Cort Theatre.
This show’s orchestra of banjos, mandolins, guitars, fiddles, autoharps, and accordions, performs Martin and Brickell’s infectious bluegrass/country-inspired songs. This music alone is enough to inspire continual grins and the tapping of feet, but it also supplements the moving story of a young girl’s eventful journey to womanhood, told by a fine cast and led by a performer whose own “bright star” has now arrived for all to see.
Young Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack, in her Broadway debut) is a 1920s Blue Ridge Mountains North Carolina girl who cherishes the written word; we see her as a teenager and also as a magazine editor just after World War II. She becomes pregnant as a teenager, loses the baby, and is separated from its father.
During the intervening decades, she focuses her energies on work to the detriment of romantic relationships. But by the time a wildly coincidental fluke of fate changes the adult Alice’s life forever, we are deeply moved and grateful for the ride, largely thanks to Cusack’s remarkable performance.
Cusack maneuvers effortlessly between young and adult Alice with nary a missed beat. As she is both a wonderful singer and fine actress, her future is, well, bright. Her excellent supporting cast, including A.J. Shively, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Michael Mulheren among others, help make Alice’s story both compelling and enjoyable.
The audience at my performance was enthusiastically swept along by this slice of musical Americana. It is a first-rate entertainment, and a welcome addition to the Broadway musical theater canon. So, many thanks, Steve and Edie: let’s hear from you again real soon.
Closes June 19
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
Forty years ago, I saw Frank Langella in a Minneapolis touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now, decades later, the 78-year-old acting veteran treats audiences to his still-razor-sharp powers via a riveting portrayal of the title character in Florian Zeller’s The Father. The current production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is directed by Doug Hughes.
Andre is experiencing dementia, and the action unspools through various locales and time periods via his skewered perceptions of reality. Therefore, confusion abounds. Was he a professional tap dancer, or an engineer? Is he currently living in London or Paris and in whose apartment? Is his daughter Anne single, divorced, or cohabiting? Where is his other child Elise, “the one I love”? Who is this woman that keeps showing up to “help” him? And most importantly, where oh where is Andre’s watch?
In an intense 90 minutes, we watch Langella display charming flirtatiousness, pathetic befuddlement, irascibility, cruelty, and helplessness. Linked to him every step of the way through his troubled days is long-suffering custodial offspring Anne, superbly portrayed by Kathryn Erbe of television’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent fame. She ably conveys her character’s continual frustration with a man she loves but who cannot or will not reciprocate such feelings.
I have never needed to avert my eyes during a performance in reaction to onstage events, but The Father’s final scene forced me to do just that, as Andre’s deterioration was just too momentarily painful to witness. But my time-out was indeed brief, since I couldn’t allow myself to miss any more of Langella’s mastery. The story this play offers is deeply sad, but we are nevertheless privileged to see a veteran artist at his peak, and that experience is worth any sacrifice.
Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Music Box Theatre
We always hope to be entertained at the theater, but it’s a nice bonus to be historically enlightened as well.
Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s 1921 collaboration Shuffle Along was the first Broadway musical penned by, and starring, African-Americans—in other words, a landmark of theater history. Award-winning director George C. Wolfe has now taken the core numbers and concepts from that original production and combined them with supplementary material, depicting how the 1921 show was mounted “and all that followed,” to quote this show’s subtitle. In doing so, Wolfe has given 2016 audiences a feast for several senses, plus an opportunity to experience some of our finest musical performers.
The reconfigured Shuffle Along, currently at the Music Box Theatre, stars Joshua Henry and Brandon Victor Dixon as Sissle and Blake, respectively, along with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter as producers and book writers F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles. Last but not least, we have the inimitable Audra McDonald as Lottie Gee, the original production’s leading lady.
First, the slightly bad news: while this production offers outstanding singing and dancing (the latter featuring superb choreography by Savion Glover), at times, the quick-moving musical segments can seem frenetic when interspersed amidst short “book scenes.” It is also unfortunate that the show’s Playbill does not list any of the songs and dance numbers by title.
However, here’s the major good news: audiences may eventually not care about the details of what they’re seeing and hearing, thanks to the dazzling talents of three former Tony Award winners.
Billy Porter provides comic relief as Lyles, and his Act 2 blues solo stops the proceedings in their tracks. Brian Stokes Mitchell still possesses one of musical theater’s most glorious baritone voices, as per his breathtaking a cappella solo in Act 1. Both these gentlemen also tap dance admirably, as well.
And what of living legend Audra McDonald? I truly believe she has never sounded better. Here, she uses the higher notes of her remarkable vocal range in several soulful diva-esque numbers, while also acting and dancing skillfully, in yet another consummate performance. (Due to her pregnancy, McDonald begins a hiatus from the show on July 25, but plans to return.)
During this show’s moving final act, we are reminded of all the African-American entertainment legends for whom the original Shuffle Along proved a crucial stepping-stone. Therefore, without Sissle, Blake, Miller, and Lyles, circa 1921, we might not be in the presence of Porter, Mitchell, McDonald, and Glover, circa 2016. Thus, our debit to those early pioneers is immeasurable.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Closes June 26
American Airlines Theatre
After attending the excellent production of Eugene O’Neill’s masterwork Long Day’s Journey Into Night earlier this year at Dallas’s Undermain Theatre, I was not ready to see it again, even on Broadway. But thankfully, I listened to my inner voice urging me not to bypass it. Otherwise, I would have missed one of the finest stage performances I may ever experience.
Oscar- and Emmy-Award-winner Jessica Lange is one of our greatest living actors. In the current revival directed by Jonathan Kent at the American Airlines Theatre, her searing portrayal of Mary Tyrone, the drug-addled matriarch of a loving but deeply flawed family enduring one painful day of revelations and recriminations circa 1912, exceeds all expectations or possible skepticism. Her vocal and body language fluctuations—for example, coquettish at one moment then blindingly enraged in the next—transition flawlessly, and her very presence on stage helps each four-hour performance proceed apace.
Her inner torment is real, as are her love and need for miserly yet devoted husband James (Gabriel Byrne) and their troubled sons, dissolute Jamie (Michael Shannon) and tubercular Edmund (John Gallagher, Jr.). Rarely are audiences allowed such an intimate glimpse into the very soul of a human being, but Lange provides such a journey.
Byrne is excellent as James, imbuing his character with true Irish sensibility. His and Lange’s one-on-one scenes are highlights worth anticipating. While Shannon and Gallagher are fine actors, their portrayals of the Tyrone sons seem somehow unfinished. They do strive mightily to empower their crucial characters, but their efforts are only partially successful.
Tom Pye’s somber set design amplifies the wistfulness and inherent sadness of the family’s situation, including a long staircase leading to Mary’s bedroom (i.e., more drug use), and a wispy curtain floating across the stage to designate scene changes. Undercurrent sounds of wind and foghorns amplify the forlorn atmosphere.
When Jessica Lange turns away from her wrecked family and faces the audience to deliver the play’s final lines, with Mary Tyrone’s deterioration complete, neither breath nor movement is heard from us, her witnesses. And we are indeed privileged witnesses—to a magnificent theatrical achievement from a consummate artist.
Closes July 30
Anyone who’s ever operated a switchboard or worked in any aspect of customer service will immediately bond with the premise of this riotous one-person play by Becky Mode. Its current production at the Lyceum Theatre is directed by Jason Moore and stars the enormously talented Jesse Tyler Ferguson, aka “Mitchell Pritchett” from television’s Modern Family.
In a mere 75 minutes, Ferguson portrays not only protagonist Sam, a sweet-natured aspiring actor and beleaguered phone reservationist for one of New York’s snooty—uh, extremely popular—restaurants, but also distinctly voices over 20 of the desperate, demanding people calling/begging for literal seats at the tables,.
Add to this vocal mélange Sam’s unreasonable boss; the coke-sniffing maître d’; his fellow reservationist allegedly delayed in traffic; his know-nothing co-workers; and his own family members, and it’s a non-stop laryngeal tour de force for Ferguson. He even manages to inject pathos into the mix, as we cheer his attempts to get Christmas Day off to spend with his newly-widowed father, and hope that he receives that audition callback from Lincoln Center.
While Ferguson is justly famed for his television work, his performing roots were planted in live theatre and musical comedy, so it’s no surprise that he handles the amazing vocal and physical demands of this role with such aplomb. This show leaves audiences awash in laughter and marveling at his skills. Welcome back, Jesse.
Fiddler on the Roof
As he did with his 2015 Tony-Award-winning Best Musical Revival, The King & I, director Bartlett Sher has once again smashingly reintroduced a time-honored classic to a new generation. His Fiddler on the Roof at the Broadway Theatre is a gem, boasting fine production values, strong performances, and a sense of both joy and history. I began smiling at the first strains of its opening song “Tradition,” and never stopped.
Once again, we’re treated to the tale of milkman Tevye and his large family living in a Jewish shtetl in early 20th-century Imperial Russia. While the citizens deal with the ever-present threat of anti-Semitic pogroms, Tevye himself faces challenges to his own personal sense of “tradition,” when his three marriageable daughters find less-than-ideal suitors. The music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick remain a joy to hear—think “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” and “Sunrise, Sunset”—as they are wonderfully recreated by a talented cast.
Six-time-Tony-nominee Danny Burstein follows the legendary Zero Mostel’s shadow as Tevye, yet brings his own notable attributes to the role, including a fine singing voice, and both dramatic and comedic acting ability, giving his portrayal a mix of affability and moral strength. While Burstein occasionally veers close to shtick and mugging during his comedic moments, he astutely avoids caricature, in what is likely the finest performance of his career thus far.
Burstein is ably supported by Jessica Hecht as his long-suffering wife Golde, and by Melanie Moore, Samantha Massell and Alexandra Silber in lovely musical and dramatic turns as his daughters, with Massell’s exquisite solo “Far From The Home I Love” one of the show’s highlights. This Fiddler indeed fairly bursts with spirit, heart, and theatrical joy.
Before the curtain rose, I overheard a man tell his young grandson, “This is a sad story, but it’s about a man who’s very proud to be Jewish.” Religious affiliation notwithstanding, anyone who loves theatre can also be very proud of this production.
Helen Hayes Theatre
As Leo Tolstoy famously told us in Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Stephen Karam’s play The Humans, directed by Joe Mantello and currently playing at the Helen Hayes Theatre, gives audiences a brief but powerful glimpse into one family’s reality and its mix of mutual devotion and despair.
The Blakes of Pennsylvania are having Thanksgiving dinner at theLower East Side New York apartment of younger daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard (Arian Moeyad). Father Erik (Reed Birney), mother Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), older daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck), and wheelchair-ridden grandmother “Momo” (Lauren Klein) bring with them care packages and multiple “issues,” some blatant and others unexpressed. In 95 minutes of real time, we watch this loving group unite, splinter, rejoice, suffer and acknowledge sadness and betrayals both current and looming in their lives. These people do indeed love each other, but we are reminded that often, that is not enough when it comes to real life.
This play demands first-rate ensemble acting, and so it receives from theater veterans Birney, Houdyshell and Klein, and comparative newcomers Steele, Moayed and Beck. As per most familial gatherings, there is much “cross-talk” in Karam’s dialogue—a touch of realism, to be sure, but the potential for missing important information is ever-present when audience laughter at one person’s remark drowns out another actor’s lines immediately following. But such is life.
David Zinn’s scenic design contributes to the action as well. The apartment is on two levels with a connecting staircase and elevator, offering nooks and corners in which characters may “hide” and accidentally hear remarks not meant for their ears. But such is life.
The Humans reminds us that all families consist of well-meaning persons with frailties abounding, as they struggle with troubled realities and uncertain futures. This excellent production offers much food for thought and revelation. Such is life.
» Catherine Ritchie is a librarian at the Dallas Public Library