Catching up on the current new musicals in NYC (fall 2013) here’s the scorecard — reviews follow —
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder — Walter Kerr Theatre — A+
Big Fish — Neil Simon Theatre — B+
Beautiful, The Carol King Musical — Stephen Sondheim Theatre — B
Little Miss Sunshine — Second Stage Theatre — C
Let’s start with the worst, and lead to the best….not to say the worst it horrible, but there’s a far cry difference between the mediocre Little Miss Sunshine and the sublime Gentleman’s Guide ten blocks north…
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, the musical — At Second Stage Theatre, William Finn (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (Book and direction) have molded a mediocre musical out of mediocre material and managed to somehow drain it of charm. The movie itself is a bit of an odd choice for an adaptation (mostly a character study of the members of a family stuck together on a road trip which is unlike any family I’ve ever known). It all leads to a junior pageant, and this show’s funniest and brightest moments. In fact everything that happens at the pageant here is delightful, while everything that does not is droll.
An excellent ensemble cast (Will Swensen, Stephanie Block, Rory O’Malley, David Rasche, Logan Rowland, and the spark of light Hannah Nordberg with a slew of others) is given number after number of not-really-funny-but-not-terrible-either character songs on route to the pageant. The show finally comes to life as the other contestants take over the stage and bring some energy and (at long last) hilarity to the proceedings.
This is a limited run, and if you must see it you won’t hate it. You just won’t like it either. Maybe you will. Some people seemed to love it the evening I saw it. Most sort of shrugged their shoulders and said “meh”.
BEAUTIFUL, THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL is a solid jukebox musical with more songs than you can shake your groove thing to. It looks and sounds, well, beautiful in the relatively new Stephen Sondheim Theatre (unique in that it’s underground, rather than entering at Orchestra level). The standout here is the stellar performance by Jessie Mueller as Carole Klein/King. Her voice resembles though never mimics Ms. King’s, but has enough of a Brooklyn twang that you can easily imagine the woman she embodies throughout the production. You simply can’t take your eyes off of her, even when at times you should be watching the wonderful things the ensemble here is doing.
If Detroit has Motown, and the other side of the Hudson has The Jersey Boys, then Manhattan has The Brill Building and Carole King. The score is comprised of an anthology of King/Goffin songs, and is augmented by a handful of competing compositions by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The production effortlessly showcases the factory that was The Brill Building on Broadway in a way that Motown never achieves in its Detroit-based showcase of songs. But the musical doesn’t hit the emotional, nor energy-based highs of Jersey Boys…call this Jersey Boys Lite.
Still, Ms. Mueller and company should have an excellent long run at the Sondheim Theatre, and its a show to which you can take the whole family — especially if its female-laden — after all, as it is stated in the show, “Carole King is a girl who writes songs for girls.” The audience around me clapped, nodded, danced, and head-bopped throughout the show’s two-and-a-half hours.
Jake Epstein plays an understated but handsome and clear-voiced Gerry Goffin — Ex-Jersey Boy Jarrod Spector is an excellent Barry Mann, and Anika Larsen is effervescent as Cynthia Weil. Along with Mueller, the quartet give this show heart and warmth.
The entire production moves along rapidly on a multi-tiered and many-layered set (at one point I started wondering how much hang space this theater has, and if they need to do rafter-based swap-outs during the show) and the costumes are divine.
The sole problem as I see it, is that there isn’t much drama here — when all is said and told, the decade that the musical covers shows Carole King’s ever increasing stardom, talent, and respect — balanced by the “drama” of a divorce. Call me old fashioned, but divorce is divorce – get over it already. It doesn’t in itself have enough “meat” to make you really think this performer had a “hard knock life”. It is fun, though, to see how the songs and lyrics of her later “Tapestry” truly do play out things that have happened to her — or maybe Jake — or maybe their friends. Recommended, but don’t expect more than what-you-see-is-what-you-get.
BIG FISH the musical, is ending its short run at the Neil Simon Theatre all too soon — its a good show that deserves a longer run…there’s clearly something going on from the Producing end of things when such audience-pleasing and sold-out shows like Big Fish and Bonnie and Clyde end their runs before New Years so that their producers can write off the tax loss this year instead of a year down the line which might have been a healthy run for this show. (Don’t be surprised if, despite being closed, it gets nominated for Best Musical this spring).
Norbert Leo Butz is the star here as Edward Bloom, tall-tale spinning patriarch of the Bloom clan, told in present day (Bloom is dying of cancer) while his estranged son (Bobby Steggert) and loving wife (Kate Baldwin) alternately work at understanding and supporting their father/husband.
The secondary star of this production is the dazzling wood-and-projection set designed by Julian Crouch and Benjamin Pearcy, with superb lighting by Donald Holder. Scenes rapidly fly from location to location (and they are legion in this production)…trees sway, clouds swirl by after a thunderstorm, mermaids swim, and yes, Daffodils smother the stage in the Act I finale.
But its a show that, like the movie, is a “male-weepie”. The father-son story at the core of the musical isn’t as strongly developed as that in the movie version, but it pulls at the heartstrings none-the-less. And the “is it real or were they all tall-tales” finale plays out simply and emotionally. Lots of kleenex at the end of this one.
Catch it while you can, though — it closes December 29th.
Finally, I can not say enough wonderful things about the simply perfect musical theater confection A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER. And you won’t have to rush to try to see it before it closes — its going to keep the Walter Kerr Theater filled to capacity for years and is currently the front-runner to win Best Musical at this spring’s Tony Awards (lets see if Rocky is as good as everyone says it is).
No detail is too small in this devilishly funny musical about a young man (Bryce Pinkham) who learns that only 8 relatives live between himself and a fortune inheritance as he sets about to (hilariously) end their suffering one by one (all 8 are played by the chameleon-like Jefferson Mays)…but don’t let that scare you off: this production has more in common with The Mystery of Edwin Drood than it does with Sweeney Todd. Cross Drood with The Drowsy Chaperone and any Wodehouse novel and you have the delightful tale.
Lutvak and Freedman have written a hilarious (and melodic) score that sweeps from operetta to music hall, with plenty of Gilbert-and-Sullivan thrown in, mixed with just enough pop influence to keep the songs moving along. By evening’s end, bees attack, ice breaks, petticoats come off, doors slam, and escapades ensue. Its the cleverest and funniest show I have seen in years. Award winning director Darko Tresnjak knows when to play up character bits, and when to let things ride and play themselves out.
The big winner here is the audience — the jokes and non-stop puns are side-splitting, and in the intimate Walter Kerr theatre, everyone feels like they are “in” on the jokes. And in a rarity on Broadway these days, its a show aimed squarely at the adult audiences that you absolutely don’t need to worry about bringing your kids to (though I am going to guarantee you that they will be bored within the first few minutes and they should be left at home).
Very highly recommended. Jefferson Mays is a national treasure…or he oughta be.
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