Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE, coming to you this week from New York, where I arrived on Friday afternoon — leaving the UK in dazzling sunshine, but arriving here in drizzle and rain all day on Saturday as well.
This morning at 9am NYC time the nominations for this year’s Tony Awards are being announced — I will write about them here on Wednesday. Meanwhile, here is my report of my weekend theatregoing here — plus a preview of what I’m missing in the UK this week.
Dinner at Sardi’s…..
I didn’t see a show on Friday night — I’ve learnt from hard experience that after a long day’s travel, by the time you eventually get to your theatre seat at 8pm it is already 1am in your body, and by the time the show finishes at 10.30pm local time, it is now 3.30am in your body, and you’ve watched it in a haze of tiredness.
Better to go to dinner and have an early night. On Friday, I duly met friends from Florida, who’d arrived in town the same afternoon, and were heading to see POTUS — so we met at Sardi’s. the fabled theatre restaurant on west 44th Street, surrounded by theatrical caricatures of Broadway personalities, including Britain’s own Cynthia Erivo (pictured below left), who began her conquest of America by reprising her Menier performance in A COLOR PURPLE to Tony winning glory here in 2016.
I was at the very first preview of that run; and was in town when that caricature was unveiled in July 2016 (below right), which I attended as her guest.
A five-show weekend….
But I’ve made up for my night off by doing a three-show day on Saturday and a double bill yesterday.
- THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH at Lincoln Center Theatre’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
This is a play — and a production — that a review persuaded me to see for myself. It was David Cote’s for New York Observer, that did the trick — and when I posted that I’d been previously looking for an excuse NOT to see it but this review had persuaded me otherwise, Cote replied to me on Facebook (publicly): “It will be good for you. A big dose of American mid-century experimental drama to flush out all that musical theater bunkum from your system.”
When I tweeted this again on Saturday, David replied: “A suggestion made with love!”
But I was actually grateful for it. It turned out to be a brilliant, bracing (and just occasionally baffling) production of an uncommonly prescient play for this moment, originally premiered in 1942 but truly ahead of its time in its meta-theatrical devices, with Wilder’s script updated with additional material by contemporary playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and a superbly inventive and constantly playful production by Lileana Blain-Cruz that is big, bold and audacious.
The only pity was how sparsely attended Saturday’s matinee was. It really deserves a much bigger audience.
- ISLANDER — Playhouse 46 at St Luke’s
Next up, my friend Darren Lee Murphy — a British theatre producer who has joined me in New York for the week — and I went to see a British transfer to off-Broadway of the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe hit ISLANDER, with music and lyrics by Finn Anderson and book by Stewart Melton, conceived by director Amy Draper. This gorgeously textured two-hander a capella folk musical is totally unlike anything else in town.
Astonishingly, a producer tells me that the transfer costs of a show of this tiny scale are at least $280,000 — before even spending a penny to make the show itself (which in this case, with its original cast still performing it, are already met, and no set to speak of): there’s a minimum spend of $116,000 for advertising/press pre-previews, $25,000 legal costs, $10-15,000 insurance, and a reserve of at least $130,000 required.
There is also, at this time of year, the challenge of getting press attention. ISLANDER has (thus far) been ignored by the New York Times, New York magazine and TIME OUT, amongst others.
The same producer who told me those costs also told me that in March and April 1950, Brooks Atkinson — the great former theatre critic of the New York Times, and the first critic to have a theatre named after him — reviewed 29 shows on and off Broadway. Jesse Green, the current chief critic of the New York Times, has reviewed 14 in the same period this year.
- KEV BERRY IS DIANA THE MUSICAL — Green Room
Finally, one of the most bizarre musicals I’ve ever seen — DIANA THE MUSICAL, that came (and quickly went) last year is now being recreated by a one-man dynamo in drag, Kevin Berry, who performs the songs verbatim — and makes it intentionally even funnier than it was, unwittingly, in the theatre.
“Sometimes it’s best to be under-estimated”, Diana sings. The show wasn’t. The genius (?) of this show is that he performs the songs without any lyric changes — proving how inane and insane they really are! It is like a backer’s audition version of the show — except you do wonder again how it ever reached the stage. But it’s all worthwhile to have led here. As Diana sings of being “a pretty girl in a pretty pretty dress”, he parades a series of smocks, each worse than the one before.
How come, he asks, the creatives thought it was appropriate to represent the AIDS crisis with a number in which a patient that Diana attends to sings, “I may be unwell but I’m as handsome as hell”? Good question about a musical that ploughed new levels of tastelessness. Likewise, a line that sums up the plot of the show “It’s a thriller in Manila with Diana and Camilla”. What a lyric. What a show. Another: “Revenge looks best in a fuck you dress, a fuckity fuckity fuckity fuck you dress”— a real song from an unreal musical. There’s hardly a need for parody when the entire musical is one! I’m so glad I saw the original musical — if only so I could better appreciate Kevin Berry’s utterly wonderful solo trawl through the score’s many lowlights.
- PARADISE SQUARE (Barrymore Theatre)
I saw PARADISE SQUARE in early previews in March, which opened officially on April 3 at the Barrymore Theatre. On that occasion, we had a set malfunction so it remained static throughout the show; seeing it again yesterday, I realised it moves a lot. In fact it’s a show in nearly constant motion, not to mention emotion, thanks to Bill T Jones’s propulsive choreography and Jason Howland’s rousing music (with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare). And there’s one performance — Joacquina Kalukango as Nelly O’Brien, who runs the bar in which the action is primarily set — that threatens to take the roof off, especially in her magnificent 11 o’clock number ‘Let It Burn’ that gets a spontaneous standing ovation. (She is surely the front runner to win this year’s Tony leading female performance).
It received mixed reviews — much will be riding on today’s announcement of the Tony nominations as to whether its run will be sustainable; if it fails to collect a nomination for Best Musical, its life may be abruptly terminated). But I’m with Juan A. Ramirez on Theatrely, in admiring its throw-back ambition and scale:
“Ahh, a new megamusical is in town. It’s hard to remember the last time one of these opened up. Not the over-bloated film adaptations that continue to plague Broadway stages, but the gargantuan originals of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Towering sets, huge ensembles, grandiose plots told through so-so methods that nevertheless win you over. Paradise Square, now at the Barrymore Theatre, qualifies on all these counts, with a healthy dose of “America is a beautiful melting pot” earnestness that has all but been erased by a more timely (more accurate) understanding of the country’s jumbled ingredients. And you know what? I enjoyed it. Moisés Kaufman sharply directs a fantastic cast way beyond what the thrown-together book provides….Megamusicals have rarely, if ever, gotten great reviews from the jump, and I suspect this one will be no different. Is this the next Phantom or Les Miserables? No, but as far as these things go, it’s a pretty excellent example of the form: a rousing throwback to old-fashioned American entertainment, cobbled together from strange, disparate sources but somehow, somehow still going.”
- THE BEDWETTER (Atlantic Theater)
Chelsea’s Atlantic has, in the last few years, had a winning streak with new musical premieres, that have included offering such adventurous fare as David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’s THE BAND’S VISIT (set to open at the Donmar Warehouse in a new production in September) and Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire’s KIMBERLEY AKIMBO (due to transfer to Broadway in the autumn).
It has just begun previews last week for Adam Schlesinger, Sarah Silverman and Joshua Harmon’s THE BEDWETTER, which I caught an early preview of on Sunday evening. It’s much too early to offer any kind of critical response, not least because Caissie Levy — in one of the lead roles as Beth Ann — is off after testing positive for COVID at the moment; but I love the Atlantic for making new musicals such an integral part of their repertoire. (And with their production of Martin McDonagh’s HANGMEN currently on Broadway, I enjoyed spotting a boardgame in the family’s lounge collection included one called Hangmen).
It’s a quiet week back home in the UK, so it’s a good week for me to be here in New York. While I’m seeing a new, massively acclaimed production of INTO THE WOODS, presented by Encores! at City Center next Saturday, Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre is reviving Sondheim and James Lapine’s third Broadway collaboration PASSION, first premiered in 1994, now with Ruthie Henshall as Fosca.
I’ll be making the trip to Manchester after I get back to see it on May 25. Meanwhile, this week in NYC in addition to INTO THE WOODS, I’m seeing the Broadway musicals MR SATURDAY NIGHT and A STRANGE LOOP, the new Broadway plays POTUS and THE MINUTES, the Broadway revival of David Mamet’s AMERICAN BUFFALO, and Off-Broadway, the new musicals SUFFS and AMERICANO, and the new play A CASE FOR THE EXISENCE OF GOD, plus Patti LuPone in a charity benefit concert.
That’s quite an eclectic, electrifying week I’ve got ahead. Full reports will follow in these newsletters.
SEE YOU ON WEDNESDAY
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).