ShentonSTAGE Daily for Monday Nov 22

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily that is e-mailed to subscribers every morning (to subscribe, send message to ShentonStageMailingList@gmail.com), and is also available online here.

I fly home overnight from New York tonight after nearly two weeks here, so this is my last ShentonSTAGE Daily direct from Broadway (or at least 10th Avenue and 50th Street) for now; though of course the bulletin will still report Broadway news as avidly as before!

A SONDHEIM DOUBLE BILL ON AND OFF BROADWAY
We’re never very far these days from a major Sondheim revival in London or New York. Though the Into the Woods planned for London’s Old Vic has been derailed following internal pressure within that theatre amongst staff members against working with director Terry Gilliam, the show will be presented in an all-star version (including Sara Bareilles, Christian Borle, Heather Headley and Ashley Park) at New York City Center for a two week run from May 4-15, as part of next year’s Encores! season there. (I already have my tickets!)

Over the weekend, I caught up with two major new Sondheim productions in New York. First I saw the Broadway transfer for Marianne Elliott’s production of Company, originally due to have opened on March 23, 2021 to mark Sondheim’s own 90th birthday, but which was shut down during previews, before resuming them last Monday at the Bernard B Jacobs Theatre on w45th Street.

It will open officially on December 9, so it is too early to comment on the production, though I did see it multiple times in London; it has now come to Broadway with local Sondheim darling Patti LuPone the sole hold-over from the London company, reprising her Olivier winning turn as Joanne (who sings ‘The Ladies who Lunch’). 

During its London run, Rosalie Craig — who originated the role of the first female Bobbie (pictured above with the company — told TodayTix’s Matt Wolf about the then-circulating rumours of a Broadway transfer for the show, “I sort of feel like New York would welcome a Sondheim production like this because the show to some extent is about New York, and I feel in my heart as if it might be a bigger box office hit there – not that it isn’t one here! We simply don’t know where we are with New York at the moment but I’ll be honest: I’ll be heartbroken if we don’t go. There are no guarantees, but I hope that we will.”

The show has duly transferred, but she hasn’t: though by the time it was first in previews in New York in March 2020, she was by then starring in a belated West End transfer for City of Angels to the Garrick, that she’d previously starred in at the Donmar; that production, too, got suspended during previews, and is yet to announce a return, if at all. This time around she is about to begin previews for the National’s Hex, a new musical version of Sleeping Beauty. So she’s at least otherwise occupied; but it does seem to me an act of bad faith that she’s not been invited to reprise her performance on Broadway, as she was integral to creating this new approach to the character.

Instead, Katrina Lenk — 2018 Tony winner for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in The Band’s Visit — is playing Bobbie here.

Another British director who has overseen a Sondheim revolution, from tiny theatres in Britain like Newbury’s Watermill, all the way to Broadway, where he has taken his Newbury-originated production of Sweeney Todd in 2005 (featuring LuPone as Mrs Lovett, opposite Michael Cerveris in the title role) and also directed Broadway’s last revival of Company in 2006, starring Raúl Esparza as Bobby.

Since 2016, he has led Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company near Union Square; he is soon to step down from that role, but in his farewell season he is currently directing a revival of Sondheim and Weidman’s 1990 musical Assassins, which I saw yesterday (pictured below).

This 1990 show — which was Sondheim’s first at the time to premiere off-Broadway instead of Broadway, which it didn’t finally reach until a revival opened at Studio 54 in 2004 — is a dazzling jewel of a musical: a virtuosic meditation on American values. “Everybody’s got the right/ to some sunshine/, Not the sun/ But maybe one/ Of its beams…” At once curdled & ambivalent, the musical is a ferocious assault on the paucity of the American dream.

But John Doyle’s production, which has a dream of a cast including such fine voices as Steven Pasquale, Will Swenson and Judy Kuhn (the latter not having a song solo is not her fault, but feels criminal), offers his trademark lean stripping back of the material to expose the raw, often brutal and exhilarating heart of the show.

TOM KITT AND JEANINE TESORI DOUBLES TOO

Also currently represented both on and Off Broadway simultaneously are two more major contemporary composing voices: Jeanine Tesori and Tom Kitt. Tesori’s CAROLINE, OR CHANGE (co-written with playwright Tony Kushner, which I’ve already written about here) the Thursday before last is back of Broadway with Sharon D Clarke reprising her monumental and shattering performance as Caroline Thibodeaux in the transfer of Mike Longhurst’s revival that was first seen at Chichester’s Minerva in 2017.

Meanwhile, the eclectic Tesori — who reminds me of the late Cy Coleman in being able to write in a variety of different ‘voices’ to meet the demands of the project — is also represented at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre in Chelsea by a new musical Kimberly Akimbo, adapted from playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2001 play of the same name, that is now previewing prior to an official opening on December 8.

I saw it on Sunday a week ago, so far too early in the process to be formally reviewing it, but I was delighted by its quirky, observant characterisation of the ageing process, as filtered through the story of a woman (played by the ever-wonderful Victoria Clark) who finds it accelerating far quicker than usual.

And the adventurous Tom Kitt, whose Next to Normal (seen on Broadway in 2009) is one of the greatest musicals of the century so far, also has two shows on the boards. The first, The Visitor at the Public (currently running there to December 8), is co-written with lyricist Brian Yorkey and co-book writer Kwame Kwei-Armah (with Yorkey), based on Tom McCarthy’s 2007 film.

The production has had a complicated gestation at the Public, losing its leading actor and being shrunk from a two-act show to a one-act 90 minute one. It now bears some of the battle scars of that journey; there’s a strange hesitancy in its story of an undocumented immgrant being shown kindness and humanity by a college professor who finds him, unwititngly it seems, squatting in his home. (In a review for trade publication Variety, Ayanna Prescod wrote of the show’s late casting change and its probable cause: the immigrant male was being played by Ari’el Stachel, who left “expressing concern over the show’s Arab-American representation. Seeing the final product, it’s easy to understand why Stachel left: The Visitor is a story characterized by white saviorism, cultural appropriation and racial bias.”)

There are problems, too, but of an entirely different order with Kitt’s second current entry, Flying Over Sunset, for which he has provided music to lyrics by Michael Korie, with book and direction by sometime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine. It is currently being produced in Lincoln Center Theatre’s main house, the VIvian Beaumont, though it feels like it would have been infinitely better suited to the more intimate downstairs Mitzi Newhouse studio. Currently in previews ahead of a planned opening for December 13, it stars Carmen Cusack as Clare Booth Luce, Harry Hadden-Paton as Aldous Huxley, and Tony Yabeck as Gary Grant – based on their documented experimentation with LSD consciousness-changing drugs.

Again, it is too early to offer a formal critical opinion; but seeing it last week (on a ticket I bought and paid for) I was both intrigued and frustrated: unlike its characters, it didn’t send me out on a high.

But I’m thrilled nonetheless that New York is offering house room to such challenging work.

TODAY’S THEATRE BIRTHDAYS

Theatre birthdays (NOV 22): Tom Conti, 80; Terry Gilliam, 81; Scarlett Johansson, 37 (pic: in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF on Broadway with Benjamin Walker, 2013); Mark Ruffalo, 54 (pic: in THE PRICE on Broadway, in 2017)

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