ShentonSTAGE Daily for FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 16

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily,  live from New York, where I’m celebrating the start of my latest decade on the planet.

It is a slightly bittersweet trip, as it is our first time back in the city since May, when we let go of the apartment that we’ve owned here for the last ten years. It was the right thing to do, as we were unable to use it at all for the two years of the pandemic owing to the travel ban — and it was so the top (5th) floor of an old Hell’s Kitchen walk-up, so it entailed climbing 70 stairs to reach it. (As Elaine Stritch used to tell of the ageing prostitute who was finally giving up the job, “It’s not the work, it’s the stairs”). With my repeat surgeries to my back, this was proving to be an increasing challenge. 

So we have treated ourselves to a stay at the brand-new, Broadway-themed Civilian Hotel, also on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen at 48th Street and 8th Avenue, designed by Tony-winning David Rockwell, who as a recent feature in the New York Observer  put it, “has designed three Broadway shows and one Broadway hotel this year.” (He is currently represented on Broadway by INTO THE WOODS and the soon-to-return TAKE ME OUT, as well as the soon-to-open A BEAUTIFUL NOISE: THE NEIL DIAMOND MUSICAL; he won his Tony in 2016 for Roundabout’s SHE LOVES ME).

In our first room, was a drawing (pictured below) for a costume worn by Vanessa Williams in 2014 when she took over in the revue AFTER MIDNIGHT on Broadway. (Williams was coincidentally the last person I interviewed before the pandemic arrived, when she was about to open in CITY OF ANGELS; we met on the Friday as the show was in previews at the Garrick Theatre, and three days later performances were suspended when the theatres were shut. The show never re-opened).

These are nice touches; but the hotel is not yet fully open — neither the hotel restaurant nor the rooftop terrace were available on our visit. And the standard room we had first was VERY compact, with only space for a double bed and a single chair area IGod forbid both occupants of the room want to sit; the second person has to use the bed). There was also no desk space; instead, you can work in the 2nd floor lounge, but during our stay it was closed at certain times to host events, thus rendering it impossible to work in the hotel.

This led me, after the second night, to speak to the manager; and we were moved to a larger, superior room, which has a simple fold-down desk, and itr has enabled me to return home from the theatre last night to complete this newsletter in my room. 

The location is ideal; just along the same block is the Longacre Theatre (where previews of Tom Stoppard’s LEOPOLDSTADT began this week) and the Walter Kerr (home to Tony winning HADESTOWN, the set model for which is on display at the Civilian, see below).

Revisiting Tony winning musicals

I revisited both HADESTOWN, which won the 2019 Tony for Best Musical, and A STRANGE LOOP, this year’s winner, this week. It was my third time seeing both.

Hadestown, of course, had a run at the National Theatre in London in 2018 as part of its pre-Broadway development process, where I saw it first when it ran  there in 2019.

Some of the original cast remain in place, notably Patrick Page as Hades and Reeve Carney as Orpheus (pictured above, left and right) — both of them coincidentally alumni of the notorious Broadway disaster SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK — so it’s lovely to see them reunited now in such a success.

When I interviewed Page in London in 2018 when the show played there, we formed a bond over sharing our mutual experiences of suffering from depression, and he told me:

“I am on medication now but I went 25 years suffering very badly refusing to take it, until it came to a point that they would hospitalise me against my will unless I did. A lot of actors and artists in general – writers, singers, painters – feel that because they need to be in touch with their emotions to do their work, medication will dull them and make them unable to work. I try to reassure people that is not the case. It’s not an exact science and may take time to get the right combination to treat your kind of depression – at least in my case it took nine months to a year – but stick with it and you will find the right balance. Now, I honestly believe I act better than I could before. My acting used to be overwrought as my emotions were frequently so close to the surface that I would jump to that rather than play the scene. We really live in the first 50 years in history where you don’t have to suffer with this.”

Eva Noblezada, the original Eurydice, was out at the matinee I saw on Wednesday, but Grace Yoo (the 4th cover!) was ace, proving how important covers are!

The company was also newly joined this week by Lilias White, replacing Andre de Shields (who won a Featured Actor Tony for his performance) as Hermes, who brought her fierce star-voltage presence to the stage that I’ve admired again and again, most recently in Provincetown last month as I wrote here; you can watch video of her in the show here). 

Rachel Hauck’s set model is, as I mentioned, on display in the Civilian — pictured above, including space for the onstage musicians, whose magnificent sound is another key feature of the show’s success.

I also revisited A STRANGE LOOP, Michael R Jackson’s autobiographical meta-musical, about a gay overweight aspiring musical theatre writer, ushering at THE LION KING, while trying to write an original show about himself; that has now found its way from Playwrights Horizons, where I saw it premiere in 2018, to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, where it opened in April, where I saw it again and wrote about here.

I saw it for a third time on Tuesday evening. It still knocks my socks off that this bold, confrontational yet tender show is on Broadway at all. It is the most audacious new musical to be seen there in many a year, and not just because of its often explicit references to gay sex. The songs are cutting-edge: a bit like Jonathan Larson’s RENT, it captures its character wrestling with life and the direction it may, or may not, be taking him. (Like RENT, there’s also the spectre of AIDS hanging over it).

On Wednesday, it was announced that Jackson’s next musical,  WHITE GIRL IN DANGER, is to premiere at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage from March 15, opening April 10, co-produced with the Vineyard; I expect a lot of attention and expectation to be focused on it.

FUNNY GIRL

On Wednesday evening, I caught FUNNY GIRL at the August Wilson Theatre at last. I missed Beanie Feldstein when the show opened here in April; and this week I also missed Lea Michele, who took over from September 6, but soon went absent after testing positive with COVID.

A pre-show announcement revealed they had 9 covers on Wednesday night (covering 13 roles), starting with Julie Benko (pictured below), standing in for the title character, who may not be a star name, but has a wonderful, wistful air of aspiration for stardom that is also entirely the character’s.

Michael Mayer has overseen a complete overhaul of the production since he first directed a revival of the show at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2015.The formerly cheap sets have been replaced by a glamorously slick staging and much more confident choreography too.

The show has a lot of old-fashioned elements, some of which are virtues — like the stunning Jule Styne overture, nearly the equal of his one for GYPSY — and some are deficits, like the often clunky book, not much improved by Harvey Fierstein’s “refresh”.

In its various incarnations since that Menier run, this production seems to be a bit jinxed — original star Sheridan Smith had a very public breakdown during its original West End transfer to the Savoy, and was an unreliable presence when it went on the road after, while her original Nicky Arnstein, Darius Danesh-Campbell, was last month found dead at his home in  Minnesota, aged just 41.

The original UK tour saw Sheridan Smith joined by American actor Chris Peluso as Arnstein, but he withdrew suddenly after about a month into the run. (I’ve recently seen a crowdfunder initiative to help pay medical costs for mental health treatment).

And now after a remarkable box office resurgence after Lea Michele took over on Broadway last week — as Deadline reported, receipts more than doubled from the previous week, grossing $1,639,212, up from the previous week’s $659,874 — the star is out again. On Wednesday night, there were plenty of patches of empty seats. But they missed a treat.

MJ REVISITED

And last night, I revisited a show that I regarded as the best new musical of the last season: MJ (though the Tony for Best Musical actually went to another MJ musical — the Michael R Jackson one, A Strange Loop).

In terms of sheer stagecraft, it is easily the best jukebox musical I’ve ever seen this side of Cirque du Soleil’s Vegas show dedicated to the Beatles, though it actually digs a lot deeper into the man behind the King of Pop moniker that came to be applied to him and also become a big burden to live up to. Myles Frost (pictured below, second from left), who won this year’s Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical,is truly mesmerising in his amazing moves and vocal fidelity to Jackson.

A pedigree creative team is led by Royal Ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon — directing and choreographing, as he also did for the 2015 Broadway stage version of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, who is joined by playwright Lynn Nottage who provides the tactful book.

All disciplines are at the top of their game, but I want to particularly note the amazing work of Gareth Owen, a British sound designer who is now one of the world’s finest in the field, and here provides just the right volume (loud but not deafening) and surround-sound throb to make the songs soar.

SEE YOU ON MONDAY

I’ll be back here on Monday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends)

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