This fall trip didn’t bring very many new musicals to sample — and the spring doesn’t look much better but the big blockbusters (Mean Girls, Frozen, and Harry Potter) arrive and I’ll be reviewing those at the end of March). For this trip there was the remarkable Once on this Island, the super-fun Spongebob, and the lovely The Bands Visit.
Seen in order:
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND – Circle in the Square –
Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Michael Arden, choreographed by Camille A Brown, Music Supervisor Chris Fenwick.
Once on This Island arrives in its first Broadway revival since the 1990 original and it is exquisite. It also creates a new superstar performer in Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune, much the way the original launched the career of LaChanze. Beautifully staged in the round by director-de-jour Arden, it uses as its centerpiece a hurricane that has ripped its way through an unnamed Island in the French Antilles. It has a particular resonance given this fall’s recent devastation. Residents, healthcare workers, and volunteers helping in the cleanup effort take parts in the story being told to a scared little girl. If you don’t know the story, its an Island-flavored take on The Little Mermaid, with the original ending, not the Disney-fied one. If you take your children (and you should) you may need to explain the ending a bit.
The cast is terrific, the sound is luscious, and the choreography is fun. The staging is creative and immersive – actors are around you, in front of you, and at times right next to you — even in the middle of some of the rows! If I have any criticism at all, it feels a bit like the show is cramped in this intimate space and could have used a larger house to spread out a bit — but then you wouldn’t have that experience you get here sitting only feet away from the actors in the very small Circle in the Square. There is something to be said about Lea Salonga talking to you before the show starts, and spending much of the show sitting next to you.
There are some fun surprises in store — like some cross-gender casting for a couple of the Gods. It works very well. Once on this Island is story theater — and what a story you get here. Prepare to cry of course. I found myself welling up in all the expected places, and one unexpected one. I love this show, have directed it in the past, and was very much a fan of every choice the creative team has made here. Michael Arden (who directed Deaf West’s Spring Awakening a couple seasons ago) continues with his creative streak of remarkable musicals. Bravo.
SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS THE BROADWAY MUSICAL – Palace Theatre-
Book by Kyle Jarrow, Original Songs by Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharp & the Magnetic Zeroes, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! at the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants, and T.I. Conceived and Directed by Tina Landau, Choreography by Christopher Gattelli, Musical Supervision by Tom Kitt.
Ok, let be be upfront about this…I LOVED THIS SHOW. Yeah, you think, Spongebob Squarepants, what the heck, right? Well this is the most fun I have had in a theatre in years. Its a hilarious, strange, creative, over-the-top, tuneful, dance-filled evening of high-energy. You don’t need to be a Spongebob cartoon series fan to love the show (but it helps). Before you get any idea that there are these big weird costumed folks leaping around the stage arena-theater style get that out of your head right how. This show is done very much like You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown – characters wear street clothing stylized to the characters in the cartoon series. Patrick wears shorts and a shirt with a big pompadour. Spongebob wears a yellow shirt and suspenders. Squidward wears a shirt and two pairs of legs ( no really – clever and simple – and later, great in a tap dance number), Sandy wears a white jumpsuit and a big hilarious round wig.
The story is simple: there’s about to be a volcano eruption threatening to destroy Bikini Bottom — the characters have to work together (or apart as Sheldon Plankton would like to destroy things) and that theme is so important right now. Laced with just enough political humor to keep adults on their toes, this is a much much smarter musical than you might think. In fact, its sort of like what Seussical should have been like had it been done right. The music by some of the best current pop rock writers in the business is fun, hilarious, tuneful, and spot on throughout. There is of course, the obligatory “Spongebob Theme Song” during the finale – and its a rocking affair.
Along the way you get some fun set work, great choreography by Gattelli, and wonderful fluid direction by Tina Landau (along with funny interruptions by Pirates of course). The cast works as a terrific ensemble, but Ethan Slater as Spongebob is superb, as are Danny Skinner as Patrick, Gavin Lee as Squidward, and Lilli Cooper as Sandy. The cast album is already available, but it sounds more alive (and more energetic) on stage.
By the time you get to the finale, you know that mere confetti is not enough — so you get confetti, streamers, bubbles, glitter, and a whole lotta fun. You are hearing this here first — expect a Best Musical nomination at this year’s Tonys. And that is no joke. Three days later I am still telling everyone about this show.
THE BAND’S VISIT, A NEW MUSICAL – Ethel Barrymore Theatre
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek, Book by Itamar Moses. Directed by David Cromer, Choreographed by Patrick McCollum, Musical Direction by Andrea Grody.
One week ago The Band’s Visit opened to almost unanimous raves by the New York media, and less ecstatic audience response — similar to Once. And similar to Once, not much happens here, but what does happen is so lovely you can’t help but admire this piece even if you may feel nothing by the end of the intermissionless 90-minute musical.
Based on the 2007 movie (mostly known for the drama surrounding its ineligibility for the Best Foreign Picture award given most of its dialogue is in English), it concerns an Egyptian police band stranded in a small town in Israel after a travel-snafu when tickets are purchased to a similar sounding town that starts with a B instead of a P. With no bus available until the next morning, the members of the band rely on the kindness of a group of locals who take them in, feed them, and entertain them overnight. Along the way you learn a little about this desert-town’s misfits and I suppose we are supposed to take away from this small group of people who can’t communicate with each other because of language differences that we can recognize ourselves even in these assorted people on the other side of the globe.
That’s a big I suppose. I found myself admiring this gorgeous production (and particularly David Yazbek’s glorious score) while feeling entirely removed and not relating to any of these characters. Let me also say I did not at all like Once, and that won Best Musical so don’t look to me to judge the final outcome of this show (though it is having trouble selling tickets in a tiny house so, there is that). This is a musical in which absolutely nothing happens for 90 minutes. Yeah, its the desert and much is made of staring into the distance, and yearning, and waiting. One of the locals has stood in front of the (never ringing) payphone for two months waiting for a phone call from his girlfriend. Its kinda funny, But not really.
Katrina Lenk turns in a every-bit-the-star performance as an owner of a cafe, and Tony Shalhoub is excellent as a shy widower and conductor of the Police Band. The musical seems to set up some big drama that will be revealed later in the show concerning this man — and nothing happens. Oh, there’s a little bit of melancholy in these broken people, but nothing here that propels any type of exciting story telling. I’m going to say I am in the minority here since most critics have just loved the show and are gushing all over each other in accolades. Its a lovely show, I admire it greatly, but I could never sit through it again, even at a short 90 minutes (which felt much longer).
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