ShentonSTAGE Daily for MONDAY NOVEMBER 7

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, live from New York!

Post-pandemic New York is a much changed place. The footfall, especially around Times Square, has returned to its usual excessive levels — and so has Broadway’s epic pricing greed, especially when it has a hit property.

After Lea Michele took over in FUNNY GIRL — and got rave reviews — the production, previously performing tepidly, has gone into the stratosphere. Tickets for this coming Saturday evening’s performance are currently available online — for $2000 each. (Go on Thursday, however, when her standby Julie Benko is on instead, and a ticket is available for only $120).

I’m going on Wednesday afternoon, and can’t wait to see it.  Peter Marks, writing in the Washington Post, has definitely whetted my appetite:

“It’s the performance in this 1964 backstage musical that an imbiber of golden-era Broadway wants — no, needs — to drink in. An irresistible cocktail mixed with fizz, rocket fuel and pure talent. Need is a good word for Michele and her Brice. It’s no secret that the actress has made a virtual side hustle out of auditioning for the role, all the way back to the first season of “Glee,” when she sang ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ and revealed a Barbra Streisand magnitude of chutzpah.”

But I’m also going with a slightly heavy heart, but at least forewarned is forewarned. Marks also writes,

“The overeager audience starts cheering before Michele can get out even the first notes of her songs, and that’s a shame. Because it’s thrilling to hear her scale each of these signature challenges from start to finish. When she’s out there onstage, framed in azure light and singing with deep passion and total commitment, she really is a rhapsody in blue.”

Before the parade passes by…..

One of the main reasons I scheduled my trip for now was in order to catch the short City Center run of a revival of Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s 1998 musical PARADE, which ended yesterday, but is certain to have an extended life now.

City Center, of course, is where the revival of CHICAGO — now in its 25th year at the Ambassadors, and the longest running American musical in Broadway history — began, as part of its annual Encores! season of revivals of musicals that haven’t been seen for a while. PARADE — like its summer staging of INTO THE WOODS, now also continuing on Broadway at the St James — is outside of the Encores! brand, but it is making City Center the go-to home for revivals, assembled with stellar casts but more pared back stagings.

PARADE perfectly suits this treatment, with an intense focus on the storytelling and its glorious, immense Tony-winning score, conducted by the composer himself. Ben Platt, back on a musical stage for the first time since he created the title role of  Dear Evan Hansen, brings a quiet, resolute dignity to the wrongly accused Leo Frank, while Micaela Diamond is just perfection as his supportive wife.

The original 1998 production ran for a shamefully short 85 performances only — his most recent Broadway entry, MR SATURDAY NIGHT in which Billy Crystal reprised his role from the film it is based on, achieved a run of 116 performances, the longest of any of the composer’s five original Broadway musicals to date.

 But Brown has had an outsize influence on the post-Sondheim era of Broadway musical theatre history outside of the slew of pop composers that have brought their talent boxes to Broadway, and here’s hoping that this revival is finally claimed by Broadway for the masterpiece it unquestionably is.

By contrast, INTO THE WOODS is becoming one of the most revived of any Sondheim shows — the current transfer of City Center’s summer revival marks the shows’ fourth outing on Broadway since its 1987 premiere. I saw the revival for a third time last Thursday, within a few hours of landing in New York, having scored a ticket for just $49 through an online lottery called Broadway Roulette. You select whether you want to see a play or musical, and are allowed to  exclude up to six titles that you don’t want to see, but are then issued with a ticket for something currently playing on Broadway.

It’s the perfect plan for theatregoers willing to take a chance, and in my case, I can never get enough of INTO THE WOODS so I was a happy man. As the title song has it,

“Into the woods to find there’s hope

Of getting through the journey.

Into the woods, each time you go,

There’s more to learn of what you know.”

That’s true of Sondheim always; but with this production, an evolving cast of Broadway star names is also rewarding return visits. New since my last visit were Brian d’Arcy James as the Baker and Andy Karl as Rapunzel’s Prince, while Stephanie J Block (pictured above) remains an incandescent joy as the Baker’s Wife (inheriting a role originally played at City Center by Sara Bareilles).

Pop musicals taking over

Meanwhile, beyond Sondheim, Broadway has become more determined than ever to plunder, exploit and otherwise draw on contemporary and classic pop to create new shows, whether its the inevitable sludge of jukebox shows — the Max Martin compilation & JULIET is now in previews to transfer from the West End, and A BEAUTIFUL NOISE features the back catalogue of Neil Diamond — or getting pop writers on board to write new scores.

This is sometimes effective — as witness Cyndi Lauper’s galvanising and mood specific KINKY BOOTS, now rebooted in a slightly smaller-scaled revival at Stage 42, an intimate one-level house Stage 42 on West 42nd Street off-Broadway, which I caught again last night and where its heart comes into even sharper focus than it did on Broadway in this more intimate setting. Stunning casting helps: Britain’s Callum Francis is superb as Lola; Christian Douglas is a dashing Charlie (with a perfect British accent); and another Brit, Danielle Hope, as Lauren.

On the other hand, there’s also the ersatz, as exemplified by ALMOST FAMOUS, which like KINKY BOOTS, is also a Broadway musical re-tread of a film, but sadly it’s almost terrible. The tone is pretty sour as an aspiring young rock journalist finds out the cost of getting too close to his subject (today’s bloggers might heed the lesson; so might The Stage’s deputy editor Matt Hemley, whose devotion to Gloria Estafan — pictured together below — knows no bounds: in 2019, he was interviewed by The Guardian for a feature on “super-fans”. Yesterday, she got what she clearly wanted all along, with the softest of interviews in no less than the Sunday Times conducted by him).

As much as I adore composer Tom Kitt’s work for NEXT TO NORMAL — a show that saw finally coming to London in 2023 — here you have to take it on trust that this is the sound of a fast-emerging pop band that Rolling Stone magazine, no less, are going to feature. It’s a major stumbling block.

Director Jeremy Herrin makes heavy, over-earnest work of much of it, too, and physically unattractive production looks cheap and under-nourished, though a spirited cast give it their all.

OPENINGS IN LONDON, ON BROADWAY AND BEYOND

My regularly updated feature of openings in London, on Broadway and selected regional theatres is here:  http://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-november-7

See you here on Friday…

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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