As the Tonys near, Broadway is booming with escapist fare

by Christine Dolen

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

1 June 2009


NEW YORK — You’d scarcely know times are hard from the crowds thronging around Times Square and into Broadway theaters for the Great White Way’s version of a stimulus package.

Shows that opened during the 2008-2009 season, which officially ended a week ago, grossed more than $943 million. That gross is up $6 million from the year before, in part due to higher ticket prices, although attendance dipped by 120,000, with 12.1 million tickets sold this season.

The trade group the Broadway League tallied 10 new musicals, eight new plays, four musical revivals, 16 play revivals and five special performances, for a total of 43 shows — the most since the 50 that opened during the 1982-83 season. When times are tough, the statistics suggest, we yearn more than ever for escape.

After a grim January with numerous closings, Broadway has come bounding back with a few new musicals and lots of small-cast plays. The television exposure from next Sunday’s Tony Awards should further fatten the box-office take for shows like “Billy Elliot,” “God of Carnage,” “Next to Normal” and “West Side Story.”

Here’s a look at seven shows vying for honors at the 63rd annual Tonys, which will be broadcast 8 to 11 p.m. EDT June 7 on CBS.

—“Billy Elliot,” Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St.; $41.50-$136.50; Telecharge: YouTube superstar Susan Boyle is older than the aggregate age of all three young actor-dancers who alternate in the title role of Broadway’s “Billy Elliot.” But the heartstrings that get tugged as we watch the real-life Boyle and the fictional Billy are remarkably similar: An ordinary person defies expectations and finds deliverance through a life-changing artistic passion.

The 2000 movie and the 2005 stage musical version of “Billy Elliot,” both directed by Stephen Daldry and written by Lee Hall, tell the Cinderfella story of the 11-year-old son of a striking British miner. Billy (played by dynamic dancers Trent Kowalik, David Alvarez and Kiril Kulish, who share a Tony nomination) stumbles into a less-than-impressive ballet class only to discover that dance does for him what boxing couldn’t. It becomes a transcendent expression of his soul, something he can articulate only through movement. Billy’s artsy aspirations put him at odds with his working-class clan and community, though the story leads to the self-affirming ending that any modern fairy-tale demands.

Elton John composed the show’s stirring score, his best theater work yet. Daldry’s direction is — not surprisingly, but most effectively — cinematic. Peter Darling’s choreography embraces everything from balletic power and grace (when the younger and older versions of Billy dance together, they’re glorious) to Broadway razzle-dazzle. For this one, the best musical Tony is a lock.

—“God of Carnage,” Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.; $66.50-$116.50; Telecharge: While certainly not the emperor’s new clothes (it is likely to cart home the best play Tony), Yasmina Reza’s withering small-cast comedy is no “Art,” either. It is both a demonstration of how quickly seemingly reasonable people can turn savage and an excuse for a quartet of star turns. Not that the actors in the Tony-nominated cast — Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden — need an excuse to dip into their take-no-prisoners bag of acting tricks.

The four actors play parents brought together after one kid bashes another with a stick, wrecking two teeth. Pretty white tulips adorn the chic Brooklyn home of the victim’s parents (Harden and Gandolfini), and at first the conversation between them and the perpetrator’s folks (Daniels and Davis) is carefully civil — that is, whenever Daniels’ scorched-earth attorney manages to get off his cellphone long enough to converse with the humans occupying the same space. Eventually, the tulips wind up all over the stage, as does an oh-so-recently consumed clafouti, which Davis uses as fuel for what must be one of the more memorable projectile vomiting scenes in Broadway history. Ugh.

—“Hair,” Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St.; $37-$122; Telecharge: Watching the “tribe” of players in the revival of “Hair” cavort around Central Park’s Delacorte Theater last summer, the actors illuminated by stage lights and moonlight and whatever imaginary drugs powered their portrayals of ‘60s hippies, must have been a groovy experience. On Broadway, though “Hair” is favored to win the best musical revival Tony, the frolicsome mood feels a little more forced and “faux,” like today’s style-over-substance peace-sign jewelry.

Still, director Diane Paulus and an exuberant cast — including Tony nominees Will Swenson as Berger and Gavin Creel as Claude — largely deliver the celebratory, defiant, anxious spirit of the 1967 original, which includes such tunes-turned-classics as “Aquarius,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “Good Morning” “Starshine,” “Let the Sun Shine In” and the title song. And there is contemporary resonance, certainly, in the travails of Claude, a young man sent off to fight and die in a controversial war.

—“Next to Normal,” Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.; $36.50-$116.50; Telecharge: In a year without “Billy Elliot,” Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s “Next to Normal” would likely take the best musical Tony. As it is, Alice Ripley should be honored for her stunning portrayal of Diana, a wife and mother whose bipolar disorder has left her with a tenuous grip on reality.

At first, Diana seems like a sexy supermom, a lusty wife to her husband Dan (J. Robert Spencer), attentive to son Gabe (Aaron Tveit) and her angry daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano). Too soon, the facade cracks, and Diana is manically assembling sandwiches on the kitchen floor.

Kitt’s driving rock score also draws from other musical styles to create an emotional, intricate whole. Yorkey’s slowly revelatory book and lyrics explore what led to Diana’s shattered mental state. Michael Greif, who staged both “Rent” and “Grey Gardens,” seems the ideal director for a musical about the fragility and resilience of the human spirit.

—“9 to 5: The Musical,” Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway; $66.50-$126.50; Ticketmaster: The mainstream movie-to-musical parade goes on, this season with “9 to 5: The Musical.” To say that the result is better than “Legally Blonde the Musical” is probably damning with faint praise, but the stage versions of three put-upon office workers have more comedic woman power than pretty-in-pink Elle Woods.

Based on the 1980 movie by screenwriter Patricia Resnick, the musical pairs a Resnick book with Dolly Parton’s score, including the movie’s famous title song and “Backwoods Barbie,” Parton’s version of an autobiography and the title tune of her latest CD.

Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block and Megan Hilty assume the roles played in the movie by Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Parton. As with those who have tried to erase memories of Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde,” the Broadway Violet, Judy and Doralee wind up being an amalgam of what audiences loved about them in the movie and what three talented performers bring to the roles. Marc Kudisch, however, is deliciously vile as Franklin Hart Jr., the sexist boss whom the women — and we — love to hate.

—“reasons to be pretty,” Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.; $31.50-$111.50; Telecharge: Neil LaBute, the playwright-director who has given the world such pungent examples of male failings and superficiality as “Fat Pig” and “In the Company of Men,” makes a belated Broadway debut with “reasons to be pretty” — same theme in a fine new play stingingly directed by Terry Kinney, one of the guys who founded Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.

The story involves Greg (Thomas Sadoski), whom we meet in the midst of a raging argument with his girlfriend Steph (Marin Ireland). Seems Greg failed to protest when his work pal Kent (Steven Pasquale) suggested that Steph wasn’t exactly good looking; Kent’s wife Carly (Piper Perabo) overheard and squealed to Steph. LaBute’s characters go on to explore betrayal, regret and self-sabotage. The writing and acting are so observant that you may walk out of the theater teary-eyed. Or bawling, even.

—“West Side Story,” Palace Theatre, 1564 47th St.; $46.50-$121.50; Ticketmaster: Last season, director-playwright Arthur Laurents staged a triumphant revival of “Gypsy,” the 1959 musical for which he wrote the book, a show originally directed and choreographed by the great Jerome Robbins. This season, Laurents has revisited another of his shows with Robbins, a musical classic featuring a score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by a then-young Stephen Sondheim.

The 90-year-old Laurents has brought “West Side Story” back to Broadway but with a twist: For the first time, the Puerto Rican characters spend some of the time singing and speaking in Spanish. The device works, and the performances by Josefina Scaglione (Maria), Karen Olivo (Anita), and George Akram (Bernardo) are the richer for the choice, which feels right for a 21st century” West Side Story” and a different America.

Still, what gives “West Side Story” its enduring power isn’t the way Laurents has focused on his inspired-by-Shakespeare book. It is Bernstein’s soaring score and Robbins’ dazzling dances that make the musical forever thrilling.



If you’re New York bound and want to buy tickets in advance, contact Telecharge at 800-432-7250 or www.telecharge.com, Ticketmaster at 800-755-4000 or www.ticketmaster.com.

Or you can take your chances, wait ‘til you go and try to snag a discounted ticket at the stylish new TKTS booth under the red stairway at Times Square; visit www.tdf.org for details.

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