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Broadway reviews: Electrifying HADESTOWN, Fun BE MORE CHILL, Divisive OKLAHOMA! March 24, 2019

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals.
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Note that Be More Chill has opened, Hadestown and Oklahoma! are still in previews, though both are transfers to Broadway, the former from the West End, the latter from an Off-Broadway run at St Ann’s Warehouse last year.

HADESTOWN, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, is quite simply the most electrifying musical I have seen since the original Spring Awakening in 2006. It’s exactly what you would expect from the creators of Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 but it actually has more in common with Spring Awakening, A group of denizens of a New Orleans jazz club tell the interwoven stories of Greek mythology’s Orpheus and Eurydice, and Hades and Persephone. If you know your mythology, you know how it plays out (kind of). If you don’t you probably should NOT go read up on them, because part of the journey is learning the story as you go. The remarkable cast plays out the story on a gorgeous multi-turntable-elevator set (at one point entirely disassembling) and it contains one memorable stage picture after another. The score blends pop, jazz, rock, Broadway, alt-rock, and blues. 

But it is about much more than that — it’s about finding your artistic identity; taking chances despite the risks; trusting others while believing in yourself, and most of all, it is about how the history of story telling can convey real human emotion whether that is in ancient times, or the very real present. It’s about why we have told those stories for thousands of years, and how they still resonate today. 

Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada play the younger lovers, and Patrick Page and Amber Gray (amazing) the elder part-time pair. André de Shields narrates and takes the part of Hermes. There are three Fates, a kind of Pointer Sisters trio of singers/guides, and a five member Greek Chorus (though the orchestra also joins in from time to time.)

By the time Orpheus descends into the underground to rescue his beloved Eurydice, the show increasingly integrates lighting design and set design with story and music to create a fully immersive musical that is visceral. You feel the energy pulsate to the music as it builds, and there were stunned gasps at several critical moments – because the audience is fully along for this journey and so in-tune with the feelings that you can’t help but recognize yourself in these 2600 year old Greek gods. And that’s a miracle in itself.

I can’t see anything else opening this season that will beat Hadestown in almost any category at awards time. Music, Lyrics and Book by Anaïs Mitchell, Developed and Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Very Highest Recommendation.

BE MORE CHILL opened at the Lyceum Theatre after a successful off-Broadway run. This is the show that went viral among high school and college theater kids from the original album and YouTube videos. “Michael in the Bathroom” has become a standard audition song for boys character parts. Don’t know the story? What if thre was a pill you could take that made you instantly “cool”. Yeah, that’s basically it. And there is very little “chill” here – it’s a frenetic, fast-paced, sometimes slapped-together-feeling musical about high school’s travails, horrors, and triumphs. It is also a lot of fun, and the older audience members around me enjoyed it as much as their teenagers who they were stuck paying 149.00 a ticket for. 

Seriously, I don’t know if there is much more that I can say about it. The show is funny, cleverly staged in primary colors, and Joe Iconis’s tuneful but unremarkable songs are sold by a terrific but interchangeable cast. I’m not sure how long it’s primarily high-school age target-market will keep this show running, so see it now if you want to. You will have fun. I liked it and thought it was better than I had expected.

High Schools are already permitted to perform the show (and have been for two years) and as these things go, it’s not the strongest high school show either. But it’s a cleaner alternative to Heathers and Grease, so I suppose it wll run its course, probably sooner rather than later. In short, this is a off-Broadway musical that has somehow made it to Broadway, but probably would do better in the long-run back off-Broadway.

Finally on this trip, there was Daniel Fish’s brilliant but divisive OKLAHOMA! at Circle in the Square. There is no way to soft-soap this one: audiences will either love or hate this experimental street-theater take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical. Fish has said he wants modern audiences to “hear” the dialogue, and the lyrics, and to interpret it in a new way.

The idea here is that the audience members are guests at a box social, where the story plays out on a stage filled with tables with picnic fixins on them. At times they are incorporated into the blocking (Will Parker lies on a table at one point, fanning the lid of a chili pot at Ado Annie). At another, the female cast shuck corn in a hilarious sequence.  There are long portions where lights do not go down at all in the thrust theater; and others where dialogue is delivered in blackout for minutes at a time. There is video woven in, mostly facial close-ups. And Dream Laurie is danced by a young black woman in a silver oversized t-shirt that reads Dream BABY Dream. The entire ballet “story” is lost in the modern dance and really, except for a lot of prancing and preening, and some terrific athleticism, there is zero correlation to the story and it is also the only place in the show where the music dissolves into screeches of electric guitar that obscure the melody line. This sequence is by far the most controversial of the reinterpretations made by Fish. 

This is not Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. This is Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma, and it is dark, brooding, ominous, and ultimately very bloody. (Gone are the subtler knives used in the original, replaced by guns throughout).  This hyper-realism will either rock your boat, or you will leave at intermission. (My performance had numerous walk-outs during the break – while the rest of us ate vegan chili and cornbread on stage). 

The cast is stripped down to 12. The orchestra is reduced to 7 pieces and while it has a “country bluegrass” sort of sound to it, it does not change any of the actual songs, lyrics, dialogue, or underscores. The tonal change makes it feel more natural, and strangely, just as lush. The cast is diverse racially and Ado Annie is played by an actress in a wheel chair.

Performances range from exceptional to wooden, although that is not the fault of the remarkable cast, but rather their staging. This is a production that feels very much “directed” but the cast are game and play their parts with skill and talent. Even when they sometimes sit around in chairs, not interacting with each other. Or play guitar while they sing. Or do a big upbeat finale while dressed in blood-splattered wedding clothes. 

Never dull, I sat riveted, completely appreciating what Fish is doing with the piece. At the same time, I wished I was seeing a standard version of the show. Though to be fair, I probably wouldn’t have bought tickets to a standard revival of the musical – and I think that proves Fish’s point right there. Theater educators and those who enjoy fresh takes on shows should make it a point to see the show You will either love it or hate it, but you will never be bored at this production. Daniel Fish is brilliant – though his work isn’t for everyone.

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