For many people the chief reason to head to Broadway this season is to catch Hamilton. And why not? It’s terrific. But there are other shows equally worthy, if not more worthy, of attention. It may not prove to be a clean sweep Tony Awards year this year.
Already playing is The Color Purple, Fiddler On The Roof, She Loves Me and Bright Star. In previews, all opening in the next month, in time for the Tony nomination process are Shuffle Along, American Psycho, Waitress and Tuck Everlasting.
Musicals usually preview for a month or so on Broadway. Part way through that preview period, the show ceases to be changed and tinkered with, becomes “frozen”, and from that point on critics are invited to attend preview performances so that their reviews can all be filed at the end of the Opening Night performance. None of the musicals currently in previews have reached that stage; all are works in various stages of readiness.
But having seen them all, none are in trouble. The preview period will see refinements and polishing, but each of these new musicals is more than terrific now, would garner a Five Star review easily, and is a superior work and better performed than Fun Home, A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder or Kinky Boots, which won the Best Musical Tony Awards the last three seasons. In any other year, any one of them could easily win the top Tony Award honour.
With the recent postponement of Nerds, the Musical Dot Comedy, the field for this year’s Tony Award for Best Musical is likely to be American Psycho, Hamilton, Shuffle Along, Tuck Everlasting and Waitress. School of Rock is the only other possible contender, with both Allegiance and On Your Feet outside chances for nomination.
On any view of it, this has been a strong season for Musicals on Broadway, stronger than for some years, and here are three reasons why that is so. And a look at an off-Broadway triumph currently previewing, destined, surely, for Broadway.
Rupert Goold’s stunning production of this new musical was a hit when it played at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2013/2014 and somewhat surprisingly did not transfer to the West End. But, on Broadway, it is bigger, brasher and bolder than ever.
Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial satirical novel, American Psycho, the musical has a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and music and lyrics from Spring Awakening’s Duncan Sheik. It is not an adaptation of the movie which starred Christian Bale; it is very much an adaptation of the book. It plays a subtle long game, but is chock full of surprises, both of the violent and the comic kind, endlessly sexy and determinedly beautiful to look at.
Es Devlin’s set designs are striking and vivid; much is the same as in the London production, but everything feels on a slightly bigger scale. The scene in the Hamptons is particularly beguiling. As in London, the stylish, immaculate costumes from Katrina Lindsay are a real treat, although there seems a lot more flesh on display on Broadway than in London. No bad thing in the context.
But two things really set this musical apart. The first is Lynne Page’s stunning choreography, endlessly inventive and constantly entertaining. The dance becomes part of the language of the narrative, providing laughs, thrills and breathless delight depending on where the story is going and what is happening. Again, the sensual antics at the Hamptons is a remarkable moment and the cast deliver on all of the requirements of the choreography without fault. They glide, and swing, and slink – glistening with perfection as they go. It’s almost hypnotic to watch at points.
The second thing is the extraordinarily detailed and masterful star turn from Benjamin Walker, who plays the central character, the self-absorbed self-proclaimed love-god, Patrick Bateman.
Walker is utterly sensational in the role and will surely give Lin-Manuel Miranda real competition for the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. Walker is almost never offstage, spends an inordinate amount of time wearing nothing but white briefs, sometimes pristine white, sometimes blood-splattered, but never falters once. He conveys the inner psychopath smoothly, as well as the inner confused little boy just wanting to be loved but unaware of what that entails. He communicates volumes with his eyes and face while saying nothing. The layers of deception are piled on and then peeled away in a quite masterful way. His use of a vacant stare is herculean.
He makes the comedy work breezily, almost as breezily as he wields an axe or slits a throat. He manages to be both unfeeling and cold and sharply desperate. And he can certainly sing. Sheik’s score comes to vibrant, thumping life in Walker’s hands, his strong vocals cutting through the intricate melodies with ease. This is the most pronounced difference between the Broadway production and the Almeida production: Matt Smith was unequal to the vocal challenges and the score could not soar as it ought. Walker’s ebullient voice gives every part of the score a fresh articulation, and the full value of the lyrics in combination with Sheik’s music, is really quite something.
This is true of all of the cast actually – everyone looks fabulous, sings superbly, acts precisely in style and to excellent effect and can dance marvelously. It is a simply terrific cast. Alice Ripley is in terrific form as Bateman’s mother and sundry other parts. Helene Yorke sizzles as the not-as-dumb-as-she-thinks-but-still-not-bright Evelyn Williams; she looks a million dollars and is effortlessly hilarious. Jennifer Damiano’s beautiful, sweet and innocent Jean is a triumph and a perfect counter-point to the excesses of Bateman’s entourage.
Alex Michael Stoll is particularly hilarious as Tom Cruise, Drew Moerlein is pitch-perfect as the suave threat to Bateman, Paul Owen and makes an initial entrance which leaves a stellar impression. Jordan Dean is crazily geeky as Luis, who fancies Bateman and challenges him sexually in a moment which is incredibly tense and electric. David Thomas Brown really is luminous in all the ensemble scenes and makes a terrific Van Patten – it is easy to see why he is Walker’s understudy. He has star quality in spades.
On the evening I saw the show, the audience caught on to the style of playing very early and ran with it. At the end, there was thunderous applause and an unhesitating standing ovation. Ovations are pretty commonplace on Broadway, but what was especially interesting about this one was that it was for a piece which is unashamedly lampoon American society, obsessions and values. American Psycho seems to be receiving a different reception from the equally satirical Enron which flopped badly on Broadway. Commentators have speculated that the material will be too esoteric and confronting for the average Broadway audience, but the buzz on this night suggested quite the opposite. There seemed a real hunger for the freshness of the topic and the approach.
And quite right too. American Psycho has a terrific score, a unique premise, a buoyant and inspired production that is shiny in all the right ways, and a stellar cast, led by the superb Benjamin Walker. Rupert Goold’s vision here is electrifying.
Commencing previews the day after American Psycho, Waitress is a new musical which is based upon a film, the 2007 drama of the same name written and directed by Adrienne Shelly. In topic, tone and presentation, it is about as different from American Psycho as night is from day. Yet, it deals in themes which are dark and brutal – it just does it in a unique and irresistibly heart-warming way.
The night I saw the performance there were technical difficulties which meant that the first Act was stopped for over 30 minutes while a piece of set was fixed. The halt came at a difficult moment and ruined the carefully modulated mood which had been set. Sara Bareilles, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show, elected to fill the void by leaping onstage and giving an impromptu concert – Part of My World from The Little Mermaid (which she insisted the audience join along with so everyone there could say they had sung with her on Broadway) and Down at the Diner, a number written for but cut from Waitress.
Eventually the show restarted and it was surprising how quickly the sense of the dynamics of the characters and situation was restored. This speaks volumes about the commitment of the cast and the sparkling book from Jessie Nelson – not to mention Bareilles’ score.
Jenna is very unhappily married to a violent, lazy and feral rapist (let’s call a spade a spade) and escapes from the unhappiness of her marital home to Joe’s Pie Diner. Old Joe is a cranky fellow but he has a soft spot for Jenna and an even softer spot for the peerless pies she cooks every day. She learnt her craft at her mother’s side: it was he mother’s way of shielding Jenna from the worst of her father’s violent behaviour. Jenna can produce magic with ingredients and creates a fresh, wonderful new pie each day, ensuring a roaring trade for Old Joe. He encourages her to enter a baking competition with a large cash prize, thinking it might provide her with a way out from her prison of a marriage.
To compound her problems, Jenna falls pregnant to her abusive husband. She goes to the hospital and is treated tenderly and kindly by a married specialist with whom she falls in love. Tentatively, then lustily, he reciprocates – probably genuinely, but perhaps because of her pies. Whatever, he takes unfair advantage of Jenna for his own lust.
Jenna has eccentric co-workers who each have advice for her, about her marriage and her affair. They have their own, quite hilarious, romantic adventures which juxtapose brilliantly against Jenna’s bittersweet story. A lot of sugar, butter and pies later, there is a birth and a rebirth and a promise of many pies to come.
Rather like Jenna’s adored pies, Waitress is delicious, sweet, deep, with very crusty edges, and, like all good pies, it leaves you wanting more. It’s a wonderful celebration of the female spirit and sensibility. Cooking is a metaphor for escape and seduction, and it works wonderfully well. The recurring leitmotif, a surprisingly tantalising set of chords, “Sugar…Butter”, which echoes like a heartbeat in the womb and instantly summons notions of maternal care, wisdom, love and hope, provides a unique binding ingredient.
Jessie Mueller makes a poignant, ultimately radiant, Jenna. She needs every ounce of pain and joy from the role, and the direct simplicity of her character is joyous. She sings superbly, assuredly, garnishing every phrase with tenderness. Nick Cordero is intensely repulsive as Earl, the leeching thug married to Jenna. Cordero is quite superb – the character is starkly real, a villain for all seasons. As the “nice” love interest for Jenna, Drew Gelling presents the handsome face of the male sexual abuser. For a show with an emphasis on home cooking, Waitress does not shy away from a careful examination of what cooks at home.The supporting characters are all beautifully drawn and played with astounding verve by a very talented cast. Keala Settle is fabulous as the loudmouth with the heart of pure gold, and she has a voice which throbs with perfectly harnessed power. As the third diner waitress, Kimiko Green is a sheer delight and her scenes with Christopher Firzgerald’s quirky and nerdy suitor, Ogie, are infectiously hilarious.
The supporting characters are all beautifully drawn and played with astounding verve by a very talented cast. Keala Settle is fabulous as the loudmouth with the heart of pure gold, and she has a voice which throbs with perfectly harnessed power. As the third diner waitress, Kimiko Green is a sheer delight and her scenes with Christopher Firzgerald’s quirky and nerdy suitor, Ogie, are infectiously hilarious.
Providing two, very different, incarnations of Oscar the Grouch, Dakin Matthews (Old Joe) and Eric Anderson (Cal, the angry cook) show that the male of the species is not all bad. Gruff exteriors hide kinder, more emotionally sensible interiors – the crust might be hard, but the centre is rich and rewarding.The banter between Settle and Anderson is especially well handled, very funny. Fitzgerald’s
The banter between Settle and Anderson is especially well handled, very funny. Fitzgerald’s Never Getting Rid Of Me is that rare thing: a first Act show-stopper of incendiary ability. Bareilles’ score is melodious and occasionally rapturous, with a good mix of comic numbers, ballads and set pieces. She Used To Be Mine and Everything Changes,which come late in the show, are the cream, whipped up, thick and high, on the ceaselessly tasty slice of life which isWaitress.
But this is Mueller’s show and she is a blue ribbon triumph in a five star show.
If someone told me that a new Broadway musical, not a revival or a reimagining of an old one, would feature, as a centrepiece, a fifteen-minute dream ballet, I would have told them they were certifiably insane. But I would have been egregiously in error.As that theatrical magician Casey Nicholaw is currently proving, beyond any shadow of a doubt, in the quite gorgeous
As that theatrical magician Casey Nicholaw is currently proving, beyond any shadow of a doubt, in the quite gorgeous Tuck Everlasting. Not only has he restored the idea of a dream ballet working in a modern work, but he makes it integral to the progression of the narrative and a natural concomitant to the style of the production. To say more would be to ruin what is genuinely a triumphant coup de theatre – as Willy Wonka says, it needs to be believed to be seen.
Tuck Everlasting is magical, in ways that Aladdin can only wish it was. It is a thoroughly American fable, with roots that can be traced back and through Anne of Green Gables, Huckleberry Finn, Peter Pan, Barnum and Big River. It has a tangy, twangy Southern sensibility and a Disneyland feel – it calls to your inner child and takes that inner child by the hand to glorious, warm, and exciting places.
It feels familiar, in a scent-of-Grandmother kind of way, but also sparkling and fresh. The pseudo-period feel of the costumes (Gregg Barnes) combines with Nicholaw’s modern take on old-fashioned dance styles to create a ripe, fresh, and endlessly joyful vista.
Claudia Shear and Tim Federle (Book), Nathan Tysen (Lyrics) and Chris Miller (Score) have wrought a minor miracle here. The story is charming and engaging, the lyrics smart and funny, sometimes impossibly touching, and the music is hum-hum-hummable, a dancer’s dream and seriously beautiful. Join The Parade, My Most Beautiful Day, Seventeen and Time – all blissful and exuberant, but in very different ways. It’s a story and music for warming the heart and soul – and every aspect of the production brings home the bacon.
And what a cast!
Terrence Mann is in diabolically good form as the Banana Bad Guy – appropriately called The Man In The Yellow Suit. He is suave, sophisticated and seriously evil. Like all great musical villains, he gets a wonderful showpiece,Everything’s Golden, and Mann makes it a riot of vaudevillian excess. He fairly drips with style.Every member of the Tuck family, each of whom is blessed/cursed with eternal life, is brought to life vividly and remarkably. Carole Carmello is an intoxicating blend of wise woman, kindly mother and independent wife as Mae and her glorious, untrammelled voice is used to great effect. Robert Lenzi is handsome and garrulous as Miles, providing a superb counterpoint to the more overtly loving members of his family – but when his story is properly told, the depth and sense of his performance comes shimmeringly into focus. He is exceptional.Michael Park has the more opaque role as Father Tuck but he nevertheless makes him endearing and empathic. He is a big bear of a man who is realistic and protective, and he clearly establishes the true bond of husband/wife and father/child with his clan. His work with Carmello is pitch perfect – a true encapsulation of a strong, long-lived love-stuffed marriage.
Every member of the Tuck family, each of whom is blessed/cursed with eternal life, is brought to life vividly and remarkably. Carole Carmello is an intoxicating blend of wise woman, kindly mother and independent wife as Mae and her glorious, untrammelled voice is used to great effect. Robert Lenzi is handsome and garrulous as Miles, providing a superb counterpoint to the more overtly loving members of his family – but when his story is properly told, the depth and sense of his performance comes shimmeringly into focus. He is exceptional.Michael Park has the more opaque role as Father Tuck but he nevertheless makes him endearing and empathic. He is a big bear of a man who is realistic and protective, and he clearly establishes the true bond of husband/wife and father/child with his clan. His work with Carmello is pitch perfect – a true encapsulation of a strong, long-lived love-stuffed marriage.
Michael Park has the more opaque role as Father Tuck but he nevertheless makes him endearing and empathic. He is a big bear of a man who is realistic and protective, and he clearly establishes the true bond of husband/wife and father/child with his clan. His work with Carmello is pitch perfect – a true encapsulation of a strong, long-lived love-stuffed marriage.
Andrew Keenan-Bolger is in truly miraculous form as the vivacious adolescent Jesse. A sort of Peter Pan character, without the darkness but with a blooming sexuality which is permanently on the almost blooming mark, he is an articulate and engaging boy who never will grow up. He sings and dances with zeal and impeccable skill. Every second he is on stage is a joy.
He is helped, in every way, by the surely award-winning turn from a very youthful Sarah Charles Lewis, who plays the lonely eleven year old Winnie. For her tender years, Charles Lewis delivers an acutely felt, utterly believable, impossibly touching, and quite complex, performance. No heart string will remain unplucked by her vitality, energy and all-consuming skill. She sings like a young Bernadette Peters and with equal intoxicating charm.
The other principals are all, without exception, faultless. Valerie Wright and Pippa Pearthree are magical, just magical, as Winnie’s adoring and fretful Mother and Nana. They epitomise the traditions of colonial life meticulously and stylishly. Fred Applegate is enjoying himself immensely as the Constable – and why not? His role is both serious and comic and Applegate walks that tightrope with a precision that is borne from long experience and great skill.
As his deputy, the apparently hapless Hugo, Michael Wartella is the perfect comic apprentice. His Wild West take on a young Sherlock Holmes pays great dividends, and no one begrudges him his great romantic moment when it comes.
The ensemble here are uniformly terrific, singing superb harmonies and dancing complicated frenetic/balletic/acrobatic routines with effervescent brilliance. Not one person on stage was anything but a triple threat, but Ben Cook, Neil Haskell, Jennifer Smith and Chloé Campell shone in that luminous star-in-the-wings kind of way.
This musical is based upon a book, although there is also a film version of the book. So, like American Psycho, its roots are in literature, while Waitress has its roots in cinema. Tuck Everlasting could not be any more unlikeAmerican Psycho if it tried, but it is just as superbly executed by an inventive, resourceful and brilliant creative team and performed by an impeccable, endlessly impressive cast.
Another five star hit in the making.
With the opening of Tuck Everlasting on Broadway, Nicholaw has four shows playing on Broadway. That’s a major achievement – but Tuck Everlasting is the best of them all.
Dear Evan Hansen
In 1996, Jonathan Larson’s Rent opened off-Broadway and spoke to a generation. Now playing off-Broadway is a new musical, Dear Evan Hansen, which is likely to speak to this generation, and indeed anyone alive today, probably in ways which transcend and surpass the impact of Rent.I sat next to an older woman, a middle-aged man sat beside me, an elderly couple were behind me and, in front and around, were a gaggle of twenty-somethings and younger.
I sat next to an older woman, a middle-aged man sat beside me, an elderly couple were behind me and, in front and around, were a gaggle of twenty-somethings and younger. Dear Evan Hansen appealed to everyone and madeeveryone, from different generations and lifestyles, cry. Some quietly, some loudly, some copiously – buteveryone was crying. At the end, there was a shared feeling of having been at the birth of something utterly remarkable, utterly unexpected, utterly perfect.To tell you anything of the story is to diminish your experience of it. Everyone should see this musical without knowing a thing about it. In very general terms, it deals with the loneliness and insecurities of modern life, the all-pervasive influence of social media, its power, privileges and pain. Inadequacy as a human being – when was the last time a musical had that thought as its central driving force? This one does.
To tell you anything of the story is to diminish your experience of it. Everyone should see this musical without knowing a thing about it. In very general terms, it deals with the loneliness and insecurities of modern life, the all-pervasive influence of social media, its power, privileges and pain. Inadequacy as a human being – when was the last time a musical had that thought as its central driving force? This one does.
Dear Evan Hansen, with a book by Steven Levenson and music and lyrics from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is a complete triumph. It is difficult to imagine how it might be improved, but refinements occur every day, despite a successful season in Washington already. As it stood when I saw it, it was – by a long shot – the best new musical playing this season. An easy five star triumph.The score is melancholic but bright with melody and intrigue, and full of character.
The score is melancholic but bright with melody and intrigue, and full of character. Words Fail is one of the most extraordinary tour de force opportunities for a male character in the entire musical theatre repertoire. The tunes linger long after you have left the theatre, and in most cases, while the songs are being sung it is as if a musical arrow has been plunged directly into your heart. The score is teeming with life, its ups and downs.
At the end of Act One a scenario has been carefully set up; like One Day More in Les Miserables it inspires great hope, but within that inspiration the almost certain shadow of catastrophe silently shuffles. Watching that shuffle turn to the spotlight is the hardest and most extraordinary part of the second Act.
Central to the success here is an astonishing performance from Ben Platt who plays the eponymous Evan. He is quite miraculous, totally can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him mesmerising. He sings like a dream and articulates, completely and faultlessly, the pain and solitude of a young man imprisoned by his own anxieties, fears, delusions and dreams. When it gets to Broadway, Platt should win every award going for this immaculate performance, this tribute to the ability of the human spirit to endure and adapt.
Every other member of the cast is splendid in every way, with special praise for the brother and sister duo of Mike Faist and Laura Dreyfuss, both of whom are exceptionally good, in very difficult, quite dark, roles.
But no one mis-steps here, and Michael Grief’s direction is visionary and enchanting. The choreography from Danny Metford and the seductive social media set design from David Karins combine to create a tapestry against which this individual tale of failure and redemption plays out – the visual realisation of the narrative is both glorious and frightening. And there is a moment with trees which is quite breath-taking.
This is not just a wonderful musical, it is an important, timely one. Literally, everyone should see it. It has something serious to say to every human living today.
These four musicals demonstrate the breadth of possibilities the musical form can take. Each is still in incubation, but each is an unqualified triumph – just all in very different ways.
Hamilton – look out!