The Good, The Bad and the Wonderful – NYC Part 1

After two weeks in New York, I sit in a friend’s home in Vancouver for four days recovering from what I now call the New York Flu. Last time it hit me mid way through my stay in the Big Apple and took out a lot of my time in the city. But this time I have been lucky:  the dreaded winter bug hit me as I was leaving the city after two busy weeks of doing business and seeing shows.

Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad in The Book Of Mormon. Image by Joan Marcus
Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad in The Book Of Mormon. Image by Joan Marcus

I hadn’t been to New York for over two years, yet it remains as it always has, the best and the worst of all possible worlds.

I have long ago given up on trying to see sixteen shows in twelve days or the like. I did that when I was young – but not anymore. I saw eight shows in two weeks and even that seemed more excessive than I would like!

Going to the theatre in New York is great when the show starts, but the experience itself is rarely pleasurable. People queue to get into the theatre for an hour before (I have never understood why as they already have their tickets), the rows are ridiculously narrow, everyone has to stand when anyone goes by and the seats are built for very small people. Most theatres don’t have cloak rooms so after scrambling along a crowded row you have to work out how to stuff coats, scarves, bags into the tiny area around your seat and under your legs. At interval when your squashed legs demand some space you may go to the bathroom and usually there is one per sex per theatre with very limited facilities so one stands in a line for almost all of the interval. There is little lounge room to stand and chat and have a drink with a companion and in the end you are hurried out by over aggressive ushers.

Of course it is all made worthwhile usually by the standard of what you see, but what I have found is that you can really judge the enjoyment factor by how much you forget your squashed limbs. Of the eight shows I saw, none were duds (and I have seen my fair share of those on Broadway over the years) six were stunning and two made me realise how my limbs had gone into shut down.

Show by Show Breakdown

To the very best of the best first – it has taken me a while and two cast changes to see The Book of Mormon and I was not disappointed. With all the talk of the language, whether the show will travel or not, the over riding factor is that this is a rare, clever, original and ultimately profound piece of music theatre. It is written by those who love music theatre and pay homage to the greats while presenting an original, sparkling, funny and intelligent work of great depth.

Yes there is language, yes the final production number staged by the natives goes too far and runs close to undergraduate humour, but its soul is so sweet and true that the heart of the show and the journey of the central characters made the experience so unique for an audience, whether they know much of the Mormon religion or not.  Let me say here and now, it is a show with a huge international future and all the fuddling about whether it will work in Australia has to stop. As long as you are open minded, you will love it. Perhaps it’s not for Aunt Agatha or many of the audiences enjoying Driving Miss Daisy, it just happens to be a show that actually can gain more audiences for music theatre. It must come to Australia, it will be the same sort of overwhelming hit it has been everywhere else it has played.

Another show that MUST come here, and the quicker the better is the glorious Matilda. I was fortunate enough to see the show at its very first preview in New York and to say that the excitement in the theatre was palpable was an understatement. In fact it felt a little like attending the first preview of the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady.

This beautiful and clever work of music theatre art is for everyone, it’s a family musical that every adult will love. Its humour and honesty is robust, and at the moment on Broadway it features most of the original London cast including the incredible Bertie Cavel as Miss Trunchbull. The best role of a woman written for a man ever created, Mr Cavel will have a Tony on his shelf very soon without any doubt. Superbly executed with a thoughtful and meaningful score, my only crit was a few sound issues with the gorgeous central girl playing Matilda, but these will be easily rectified. I could see this show playing a long long season (try 25 years, plus!). The local association is with Tim Minchin who has created a score to build dreams upon. This is a rare and wonderful night in the theatre.

Also still in previews is the Cyndi Lauper musical Kinky Boots based on a little known film which starred Joel Edgerton, this is a loud, fun, super coloured and boisterous musical that not surprisingly comes from Jerry Mitchell, the same director who gives us Legally Blonde. This  story of a simple English shoe factory which becomes the maker of boots for mostly drag queens is Priscilla for the masses.

There is nothing too shocking or rude here, main stream audiences can revel in the high jinks of its chorus of drag queens and feel perfectly at home. Although there is nothing very original about the show itself (it has more than a little in common with The Full Monty though thankfully it remains in its British setting and no one has tried to Americanise it), its sense of humour, humanity and great fun carry the evening.

The music is forgettable but likeable and serves its purpose. The leading cast is terrific with the remarkable Billy Porter jumping in and out of drag and carrying the show mostly on his back assisted by his truly sweethearted white bread male star, Stark Sands (a character who could become tiresome if not played well, but Mr Sands has just has the right amount of innocence and adventure to make this whole light weight concoction float like a bubble). I have never seen a theatre literally shake with audience reaction, but the front of the dress circle where I was sitting felt like a minor earthquake had hit the theatre during the curtain calls. One can not always predict these things, but it’s as close to a surefire hit as any new musical around (with the obvious exception of Matilda of course)

To come in part two – Newsies, Once, the new Cinderella and Carousel. 

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Les has written 59 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by