The Good, The Bad and the Wonderful – NYC part 2

Les Solomon continues his report from a recent trip to NYC.

Over the years in New York I have seen my fair share of bad shows. I sadly rememberSweet Smell of Success, Steel Pier, Sideshow (which seems fondly remembered because of the score but was a terrible show) to name a few. So, I am very picky about what I go and see. A night wasted on a bad show can be very frustrating with a limited number of nights in New York. 

Nice work? If you can get it…

Broadway Tour
Broadway Tour. Image by

I’m not sure if it is better or worse when you come out of a show that’s a hit and feesl like you have witnessed a total dud. That’s very much what I felt about Nice Work If You Can Get It the Vehicle for Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara  based around some of Gerswhin’s most popular songs. Firstly, Ms O Hara was elsewhere (more on that later) and her understudy — well she lacked star power and the ability to rise above the material. Matthew Broderick was so cute and fun playing Ferris Bueller and other pubescent smart talking teenagers when he was in his early 20s. Watching him now still play the perennial innocent at his age is now just plain embarassing and even in a script tailored for his blank stares and goofy one liners, it is hard to take.

The show itself has some of Gershwin’s best songs and if you just listen to the cast album (fabulous orchestrations) you could be forgiven for thinking there is a great show built around them. What you get is a woefully thin book that tries to emulate about every Astaire and Rogers movie you have ever seen. I am not a great fan of farce and all its mistaken identities, so add this to my irritation with Broderick and the fact that, unlike similar musical compilation shows such as Crazy for You and My One and Only, this one doesnt feature even one fabulous epic dance routine (the ensemble are there, but they are small in number and seem a little under used). Even despite the great Judy Kaye and the always glorious Blythe Danner in comic support roles, this one left me totally cold and annoyed.

O’Hara Away

Kelli O’Hara was missing for a very good reason. The night before, I saw Ms O’Hara in all her glory during a week off from Nice Work performing Julie Jordan with the New York Philarmonic in a semi-concert, semi-staged version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s immortal and almighty Carousel at the Lincoln Centre. This was one of those nights you grab if you happen to be in New York at the time of the brief staging and just get a seat whatever it costs. Time magazine at the end of last millenium voted Carousel the best musical of the twentieth century and I can go along with that. It is without question the best work of the R& H canon as it explores the human condition in greater depth and asks some real questions about the whole existence of the human soul, wrapped in the most majestic and magnificent of musical scores. Some people judge it harshly because of the rather lollypops-and-roses 1956 movie version. I have very fond memories of both the marvellous National Theatre production in London twenty years ago and more recently an amazing production by The Production Company in Melbourne (their best ever production) starring David Campbell.

This version offered the ever extraordinary Kelli O’Hara (probably New York’s leading music theatre star of the moment), opera singers Nathan Gunn (as Billy) and Stephanie Blythe (as Nettie) and promising Jessie Mueller as Carrie with strong support from experienced Broadway pros Jason Danieley (Snow) and Shuler Hensley (Jigger). Superbly played by the orchestra and with O’Hara’s intelligent and heartbreaking reading of Julie, there was much to love here. As always these mix-of-music-theatre-and-opera shows always tend to leave the Opera singers wanting in the acting department (though Blythe was spot on and marvellous as Nellie), and the lack of some of the key choreographic numbers was disappointing though expected in an event billed as a concert. Still, this was a night of great music and left a longing to see another full scale production of this incredible work that has so rarely been revived in any full scale in Australia since the sixties!

(NB — despite the lack of choreography, there was a strong cut down version of Louise’s Ballet with an epic performance from young dancing superstar, Tiler Peck, as Louise. Also important contributions in cameo roles from Broadway vets Kate Burton and John Cullum).

Once upon a Broadway night

I finally caught up with the multiple Tony winner and surprise hit of last season – Once (coming to Australia very soon) and even though i enjoyed the wonderful music and the fine use of the musicians on stage this was not my favourite night on Broadway.

The slight premise of the original movie upon which it is based is beautifully opened out for stage and the use of the musicians also interacting with the audience (at interval and before the show) adds much to a night I couldn’t help feeling was somewhat over-rated. Yet the strength of the haunting music and the superb playing of the leading actors does much to relieve some of the tedious aspects of the show. I did again find some difficulty with American actors affecting thick English and Irish dialects and felt the show screamed for sur titles at times.

Good Newsies

Finally, to a couple of light weight delights- Newsies the much lauded stage version of what was a flop Disney movie of the early nineties. This show has been a sensation on Broadway, it was originally intended for a short season before being fielded out to high schools and amateurs. Instead it has become one of Disney’s biggest Broadway hits and will no doubt sit comfortably on the Great White Way for several years. As reported by so many who have seen it, the story of the New York newsboy strike of the early part of last century is wafer thin. The strength of the show is the dancing of the boys and really the show flies every time a dance number comes along. What holds the show from being as charming as it could is the plot line, which really becomes quite dull in the second half. Too much plot has to be resolved at a time when we just want the boys to come on and dance again.

Corey Cott is the new leading man (replacing Jeremy Jordan who left for a leading role in TV’s Smash — probably one of the worst career decisions of the decade as that has turned out). Cott is fresh out of drama school and carries the emotional journey of the show very well on his handsome shoulders. He is clearly an actor first, a singer second and a dancer third, yet he has enough skills in each department to make a strong and indelible impression in the central role of Jack Kelly. His likeability and acting chops did much to carry me through the plot heavy second half. This is a family show and as such is probably a little too American centric to ever travel to Australia. It is, regardless, a great way to spend a night in a Broadway theatre.

Unexpected Delight

It is always a thrill when a show you expect nothing from turns out to be a highlight. I almost selected another show to see the afternoon I caught Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. This is a smart reworking of the TV presentation of the R& H version of the classic fairy tale that has been filmed three times. The big difference here is a brand new script by Douglas Carter Beane, who has given the show a sort of modern Wicked sensibility that will appeal to an older teenage crowd and with enough wit and adult sensibility to also take the journey to an adult audience giving them a great night in music theatre.

Characters are firmly drawn, the spikey feminist sensibility of the leading character (at one point she throws the glass slipper at the prince and is concerned about the environment) goes a long way to redirect the show into a more  mature landscape. On Broadway it is all beautifully staged with epic choreography and costumes and superb central performances. Laura Osnes (Broadway’s other music theatre shining light) is a joy as Cinderella, she is well matched by a sardonic and smart , saavy prince played by Santino Fontana and three glorious comic performances from Victoria Clark (Light in the Piazza), Harriet Harris (Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Ann Harada (Smash). It is rare to see a light weight show like this that actually makes you care about the characters, but this Cinderella works on every level and with that lovely R&H score augmented by some new songs that were left over from their other shows (Most notably ‘Now is the Time’ and ‘Loneliness of Evening’ and the eleven o clock number ‘There’s Music in You’– this all adds up to a pretty special event.

This is another show that could travel. It would do very very well in Australia if produced and cast in the right way. It put a nice finishing touch to a busy but productive time in the always wonderful New York.

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