Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE, coming to you live from New York this week — which is also why I missed yesterday and the day before. My schedule just became too rammed, with double shows on each of those days, some of which I will use this opportunity to catch up on….
They saw me variously stretching my wings beyond Broadway, apart from last night going to a press performance for PLAZA SUITE, ahead of its official opening on Monday (March 28), that heralds the beginning of an upcoming rush of some sixteen openings that will take place between then and the same day exactly a month later, April 28, that is the official cut-off date of the 2021/22 season that the next Tony Awards in June will reward. (POTUS, originally announced to open on May 9, has now brought forward its official press opening to the matinee on April 28, so as to make it in under the wire).
There are also three returning shows in that timeframe, BEETLEJUICE (which had its original run curtailed not because of the pandemic but because its original home the Winter Garden was coveted — and then summarily taken — by THE MUSIC MAN instead, but is now being rehomed at the Marquis), MRS DOUBTFIRE (which suspended its run owing to the Covid resurgence caused by Omicron, and now resumes performances at the Sondheim Theatre after its hiatus) and THE GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY (that will return to the Belasco for a run of 50 more performances from April 29-June 11).
I will report on PLAZA SUITE on Tuesday, following Monday’s opening. It is only the fourth show to have opened on Broadway since January, so the slate of fifteen more new shows set to open this season are coming in the first 28 days of April, meaning an average of one every two days, except that there’s also a run of consecutive openings from April 19-21 and April 24-28 (with two opening on the same day, April 27), so expect the critics to go stir crazy during that time…..(Consult my regularly updated feature of shows scheduled to be opening ahead, including on Broadway, for a more detailed diary).
From (Lower) Manhattan to New Jersey
Yesterday afternoon I saw a regional production, about 45 minutes into New Jersey (at the Axelrod Arts Centre, located in a Jewish community centre in the town of Deal Park), of Jason Robert Brown’s originally short-lived (but now thankfully still enduring) musical THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, first seen briefly on Broadway in 2014.
It yielded of Brown’s most aching and rapturous scores, pulsing with the emotion of crushed romance, sublimely sung by Kate Baldwin and Aaron Lazar as a couple who have a passionate four-day encounter that changes their lives forever.
This revival — beautifully and economically directed by Hunter Foster, who played Francesca’s husband Bud in the original Broadway production — captures the show’s heart and art. And the two leads broke my heart, just as their own are broken.
Brown has a new show on Broadway this season — a stage musical adaptation of the Billy Crystal film MR SATURDAY NIGHT, that Crystal will reprise his own role in. So that should guarantee the show’s commercial viability like no other Brown musical to date. (Since his 1998 Tony winning Broadway debut with PARADE, Brown has had four original musicals, including that show, so far produced on Broadway; the longest running was called 13, which achieved 105 performances, in 2008).
Still, that record far eclipses that of Barry Manilow, even though he has had four runs of his concert shows on the Great White Way of his own since 1976; but for whom a Broadway run for a musical he has had in development for some thirty years is yet to elude him.
HARMONY — co-written with Bruce Sussman — was first produced in a regional run at La Jolla Playhouse, near San Diego, in 1997, when Charles Isherwood, then writing for Variety, called it “a small musical with a big story to tell”; a subsequent Broadway run in 2003 was aborted when the producer failed to raise the funds, before another production took place in Houston in 2013. In a New York Times interview for the latter, Manilow was quoted saying, “I just want to see it one more time before I croak.”
He’s now 78, and on Wednesday night he was at the first preview for its New York debut, finally, under the auspices of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) at the Museum of Jewish Heritage located downtown in Battery Park City.
I was there, too, and although it is obviously unfair to review a first preview — especially a performance that suffered a few technical glitches, genially handled by director/choreographer Warren Carlyle on the “god mike” with no evident panic — there was something quite satisfying about seeing Manilow finally realising his dream to bring the show to Manhattan, albeit its southern tip and not the bright lights of Broadway.
It was also singularly appropriate to see it within the walls of the Museum of Jewish Culture, which variously honours lives lived and lost in the Holocaust, since this musical tells the true story of a German choral group, partly made up of Jews and partly of Gentiles, who became an international recording and concert sensation in the 30s, but had their partnership formally dissolved by the rise of the Nazis.
For all those powerful associations, Harmony here carried more weight than its (as yet) sometimes clunky storytelling might have had uptown. Sometimes, it has been said, shows need to cast their theatres as well as their companies; and this was the perfect place to see it. It runs there to May 8.
And finally, back to Broadway for another showman singing superstar: the long-departed Michael Jackson, around whose career the dazzlingly staged MJ is now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Yes, there is the problematic legacy of his off-stage life, particularly the accusations of paedophilia that emerged, during his lifetime, around his close relationships with young boys that have since been the subject of a powerful documentary.
This musical revue only fleetingly mentions it, and as scripted by Lynn Nottage, the show — which is produced “by special arrangement with the estate of Michael Jackson”, as the billing puts it — steers an inevitably guarded course around those controversies. Cleverly framed around the rehearsal process for his 1992 international Dangerous tour that a documentary crew from MTV are following, it is one of the best “jukebox” tribute shows I’ve ever seen, mapping its own distinctive artistry and seamlessness to Jackson’s own ruthless perfectionism.
Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon does a tight and compelling job of recreating and blending Jackson’s multiple influences and own innovations, with one sequence referencing Astaire, the Nicholas Brothers and Bob Fosse a particular highlight.
And Myles Frost gives a simply amazing performance in the title role, capturing his off-stage hesitancy and wariness with his onstage precise moves, mood and magnificence.
SEE YOU ON MONDAY
I fly home to London overnight tomorrow, so I have a couple more shows yet to see. See you back from home territory on Monday!
If you can’t wait that long, I can also be found regularly on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/.