There is a dazzling new smile on Broadway packing audiences into the Ambassador Theatre where the long running revival of the 1975 Kander and Ebb musical Chicago has been playing for a number of years. The charismatic smile belongs to the one and only Rhythm and Blues superstar, the one name wonder Usher. His presence in the acclaimed musical that has also been made into an Oscar winning film has revitalized the box office to such an extent that the show’s now scarce tickets have become a hot item in much demand.
The self proclaimed “Ultimate Entertainer” is making his Broadway stage debut branching out into his newest yet career arena. He plays the cynical silver fox Billy Flynn, following in a long line of leading men who have tackled the part of the hard edged criminal attorney including Jerry Orbach, who originated the role, James Naughton, who won a Tony, and Richard Gere who possessed a captivating charm that snared him an Oscar nomination in the recent film version.
Playwright Douglas Carter Beane takes on Hollywood hypocrisy and the cost of fame in his clever new comedy, The Little Dog Laughed, which may be the tastiest treat in town. Directed by Scott Ellis with a crisp engaging style that mines all of the play’s tangy zingers, the evening is an audience pleasing feast.
Disney Theatrical Productions reportedly spent over 15 million dollars to launch the musical spectacle Tarzan on Broadway. Based on their 1999 animated film with a hit soundtrack by Phil Collins that includes the Oscar winning song “You’ll Be in My Heart,” the extravaganza sailed into town amidst a tremendous publicity blitz and boasting a lush box office advance of 20 million dollars. Big money seems to be the name of the game and Disney has single handedly changed the complexion of the Broadway scene becoming a major player here by turning their animated films Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King into expensive long running hits. Only time will tell if Tarzan succeeds as well, but irregardless the mega show is not a major artistic achievement, despite some staggeringly outstanding special effects by the talented designer-director Bob Crowley.The amazing opening sequence of a ship being tossed across the sea in a thrilling technologically created storm replete with thunder and lightning is the highlight of the evening. The drama begins simply with a blue scrim curtain on which moving images of the continent of Africa are projected until a ship sails into view on the blue ocean. These images are morphed into a violent sea storm enhanced by a soundtrack that brings you inside the ship, as a man, a woman, and a child struggle frantically against the powerful waters. We witness bodies twisting in the air and falling through space against a background of horrendous sounds until the family is ultimately thrown upon the beach with a blast of lightning. In a momentary flash the blue ocean is transformed into a green forest of tangled hanging vines where their struggle to survive continues. They claw their way across the beach until a black panther descends upon them, killing the parents, and leaving only the crying baby behind.
The British director John Doyle reinvented Sweeny Todd last season with an imaginative production that won him the Tony Award for Outstanding Direction of a Musical. In his revolutionary staging he did away with the orchestra and instead had the cast double as musicians. Now he has applied the same idea to his current Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s classic 1975 musical Company, which recently premiered with the same cast to excellent notices at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park this past spring. What worked marvelously for Todd, however, hinders Company. The concept interferes with the momentum draining the evening from any sense of urgency and taking the actors out of the moment.
The Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick musical The Apple Tree hasn’t been revived on Broadway since the original 1966 production, which starred Barbara Harris in a Tony Award winning performance. Esteemed director Mike Nichols helmed the show and the leading lady received capable support from Alan Alda, but the musical was considered rather slim even back then. Now the Roundabout Theatre Company has brought a revival based on the acclaimed 2005 New York City Center Encores production to Studio 54. The Apple Tree directed by Gary Griffin is still slender; however, the cast headed by the dynamic Kristin Chenoweth with Brian d’Arcy James and Marc Kudisch delivers top notch robust comic work in hopes of filling the gap.
The Tony Award committee announced their rulings regarding the upcoming Tony Awards. No real surprises in that the revivals of A Chorus Line and Les Miserables will be ineligible in a number of categories (sets, costumes, lighting, direction) in which the two musicals merely presented “re-creations” of the original productions.
Kevin Spacey apparently still riding the “ego trip” that propelled his recent film flop, “Beyond the Sea,” (based on the life of Bobby Darin) may have over priced himself as the star of the upcoming Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. He reportedly will receive just shy the $60,000 a week he wanted…truly amazing for a serious play of considerable length that will run for less than 90 performances, making it nearly impossible for Moon to break even; Kevin will have to best Julia Roberts at the box office if this show is going to turn a profit. Good luck Kevin; may the Gods be with you!
Paul Rudnick’s newest play Regrets Only, a modern day social comedy set in a lavish Manhattan penthouse is jam packed with hysterical dialogue and witty one liners. There are many madcap moments in his new comedy, which takes on topics like friendship and gay marriage, but the evening fails to engage with thought provoking relevance. Mr. Rudnick, who won awards for his early play Jeffrey and had an Off Broadway hit with The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, is a very funny playwright, indeed, but his work about political awakening with characters boarding on caricature is unfortunately underdeveloped.
Hallelujah! The Color Purple, the new Broadway musical, is a joyous celebration of the human spirit. Culled from Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the impassioned tale is a shimmering mosaic that is more than a triumph in every way. Here is a reason to rejoice! The Color Purple is a serious musical graced with intelligence and humor that is destined to become a classic.
The Manhattan Theatre Club misfires again with the new British import Losing Louie directed by veteran Jerry Zaks. The comedy is Simon Mendes da Costa’s second play and was nominated for an Evening Standard Award in London where it debuted last season. The playwright shows promise, but the Americanized production gracing the stage of the Biltmore is a one dimensional mess.
Cameron Mackintosh, who brought us Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, is presenting a Broadway revival of his long running smash hit musical Les Miserables just over three years after the show, which is still running in London, closed a successful run here in May of 2003. Directed by John Caird and Trevor Nunn, the same team that directed and adapted the first, this new version with fresh orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke has been slightly scaled down for the smaller stage and boasts an entirely new cast of excellent singers, but the evening feels like a vibrant carbon copy of the masterful original without its stirring heart.
George Bernard Shaw is a world renowned British playwright, a literary figure whose impressive body of work lists several novels and more than 50 plays including Pygmalion (1912), which was turned into the perfectly sublime musical My Fair Lady. At the time of his death in 1950 he was considered by many to be one of the greatest playwrights in the English language. His plays are filled with wit and are striking because of his comments on contemporary issues and values that encourage the audience to become engaged in evaluating the world.
David Hare’s new drama, The Vertical Hour, the first of his plays to premier on Broadway, continues his discussion of the war in Iraq, which was the basis of his most recent New York production, Stuff Happens, at the Public theatre. The central character is played by the much acclaimed film star Julianne Moore, an actress whose film work reflects thoughtful subtleties. Making her Broadway debut here she is decidedly miscast in a role that appears to be complex, but which is unfortunately underdeveloped.
A glossily refurbished revival of the Michael Bennett classic, A Chorus Line, has arrived on Broadway 16 years after the endearing musical ended a nearly 15 year run becoming in the process one of the most successful Broadway musicals ever. When it opened in 1975 Chorus Line was considered an extraordinary ground breaking achievement winning nine Tony awards including wins for best score by Marvin Hamlisch, best lyrics by Edward Kleban, best book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante as well as multiple wins for the actors. The current reincarnation clones the brilliant original in almost every detail right down to the costumes, and while the dancing remains gripping, the evening fails as drama where the original soared.