|By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN
| Steven Pasquale and Kelli O’Hara in Bridges of Madison County/ Ph: Joan Marcus
Everything is cyclical, and right now the New York theater scene is more adventurous than it's West End equivalent, especially where new musicals are concerned.
Nothing in London at the moment can compare with Bullets Over Broadway, a joyous amalgam of The Producers and 42nd Street that provides a couple of hours of unmitigated pleasure. And although at the preview I caught Marin Mazzie was indisposed, her understudy, Janet Dickinson, proved a powerhouse substitute in the role of Helen Sinclair, the leading lady of both the show and the show-within-the-show.
Adapted by Woody Allen from his 1994 movie, it's an exhilarating and tuneful retread, set in the 1920s, in which a serious-minded young playwright (Zach Braff) compromises his creative integrity in order to get his play produced on Broadway. It allows Braff to demonstrate his versatility as the nerdy author and gives Nick Cordero the role of his career so far as a mobster whose latent gifts as a dramatist save the play-within-a-play from disaster.
There are terrific performances, too, from Helene Yorke as a quintessentially ditzy showgirl who happens to be the girlfriend of the show's gangster backer (Vincent Pastore), and Betsy Wolfe as the playwright's long-suffering girlfriend.
The musical's greatest asset, however, is director/choreographer Susan Stroman, who, blessed with a sure-fire, gag-infested book and working with a catchy clutch of original 20s songs, gives Bullets Over Broadway more pazazz than is decent. In a word – wow!
In complete contrast, but equally engaging, is another film adaptation – The Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, based on the 1949 British comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets.
Though the body count in Bullets is paltry by comparison to the numerous corpses of the D'Ysquith family in Gentlemen's Guide, there is nothing particularly grisly about this classic tale of a would-be heir to a family inheritance who, in order to ensure he gets what he believes is his due, eliminates, with gleeful cunning and inventiveness, his entire clan.
Its low-key, old-fashioned mayhem might, to some, feel disconnected to the pace and decibel levels of certain, more contemporary Broadway offerings, but what this disarming Edwardian romp lacks in the in-your-face department is more than compensated for by its wit, its charm, its melodious Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche score (book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak) and in its pitch-perfect performances.
Jefferson Mays – in the role created by Alec Guiness – is beguilingly versatile and seriously funny as all the members of the D'Ysquith dynasty, while Bryce Pinkham as Monty Navarro, the man who would be king of that dynasty, so skillfully and endearingly insinuates himself into the diabolical plot that, despite his crimes, you're actually rooting for him to succeed.
Alexander Dodge's Pollock Theatre-inspired sets and Linda Cho's costumes provide period authenticity, and it's directed with flair and grace by Darko Tresnjak. A real sparkler.
Carole King's life and meteoric career are entertainingly evoked in Beautiful, a jukebox musical in the mold of Jersey Boys but with more emotional heft.
What will undoubtedly be seen (and heard) as the soundtrack to the lives of those whose teens were defined by the 60s, writer Douglas McGrath's convincing recreation of that golden period in pop music is brought vividly to life by Jessie Mueller, whose ingratiating central performance as Carol King is certainly worthy of a Tony. More an evocation than mere impersonation, Mueller's performance glows with an inner life and elevates what could so easily have been a glorified pop concert into a compelling musical drama.
She's well served by Jake Epstein as her collaborator-cum-husband Gerry Goffin, and by Jarrod Spector and Anika Larsen as her friends and rival composers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill.
The show looks good (sets by Derek McLane), sounds good, and is simply and effectively choreographed and directed by Josh Prince and Marc Bruni, respectively.
Beautiful has heart and soul; Aladdin does not. It's got everything else, mind you: eye-popping sets by Bob Crowley (loved the magic carpet ride!), great costumes (Gregg Barnes), Vegas-style choreography and direction by Casey Nicholaw, and James Monroe Iglehart as the busiest, hardest working genie that was ever coaxed out of a lamp. It even boasts a few good songs courtesy of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice.
More a theme-park ride than a fully functioning musical, what's missing is the human factor. Not once are your emotions engaged. It's Disney by numbers – the numbers being calculated in dollars, pounds, euros and yen. So what’s new in Disneyland?
The Bridges of Madison County, on the other hand, wants desperately to have heart and soul and, heaven knows, tries hard to acquire both. But it just doesn't work. Kelli O'Hara and dependable Steven Pasquale do all they possibly can to ignite a romantic spark, but Jason Robert Brown's score, though lushly orchestrated, needs to be less generic and more Rodgers and Hammerstein to work. Marsha Norman's book is just too two dimensional and sketchy. Michael Yeargan's sets contribute very little to the mood or atmosphere of the piece. And the Our Town-like direction by Bartlett Sher (he's even placed people on the side of the stage while his protagonists are making love) never seems focused enough. It's also far too somber for its own good.
There is no singing and dancing in A Raisin in the Sun, but director Kenny Leon's superb revival of Lorraine Hansbery's groundbreaking 1959 drama is certainly worth singing and dancing about.
Any qualms that its star, Denzel Washington, is, at 59, too mature to play Walter Lee Younger, vanish the moment he walks on stage. Hansberry's text pegs him at 35 – upped in this production to 40. Astonishingly, Washington could pass for a man in his late 30s. The dynamism and star quality he brings to the role provides the play with a centrifugal force that gathers momentum all evening.
Director Leon, fully aware of his star's power, cannily allows him to share the final moments with his mother (the wonderful Latanya Richardson Jackson), who, in normal circumstances, ends the play on her own.
The rest of the cast is flawless, with Sophie Okonedo as Walter's put-upon wife Ruth and Anika Noni Rose as his sister Beneatha – who aspires to become a doctor – completing a formidable trio of women.
I'm not sure that the full glare of Broadway will do any favors for Will Eno's elliptical and plotless The Realistic Joneses, an episodic, free-flowing riff on the human condition in general and life, death, mortality, loneliness and communication (or lack of it) in particular.
A smaller off-Broadway house might have been the more appropriate venue – despite its stellar cast: Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts and Marisa Tomei.
The decipherable narrative threads involve two couples – neighbors and both called Jones – who talk without really communicating, or as one of the characters puts it, “throw words at each other.”
There is, on occasion, a Pinteresque sense of menace and tension, but the writing and the disorienting speech patterns are uniquely Eon's. The text is awash with non-sequiturs, weird juxtapositions and one-liners that come out of left field and are genuinely funny.
It's an intriguing theatrical adventure, with well-tuned direction by Sam Gold and terrific performances by its celebrated quartet of players that some will find infuriatingly off-key and reject while others (myself included) will embrace.
Another excellent quartet of actors – Tyne Daly, Frederick Weller, Grayson Taylor and Bobby Steggert – breathe life into Terrence McNally's Mothers and Sons, in which its author eavesdrops on 90 crucial minutes in the lives of a lonely, angry and bitter woman (Daly) who arrives in Manhattan from Dallas and turns up unannounced at the apartment of her dead son's former lover (Weller), his new, younger partner (Steggert) and their six year-old surrogate son (Taylor).
The change in outlook over the last 30 years or so toward AIDS, gay marriage and gay relationships provides McNally with enough material for at least three plays. That he manages to compress these issues into 90 minutes of highly charged drama without, in the process, being didactic or preachy, says much for his craftsmanship – abetted, on this occasion by Sheryl Kaller's sensitive production, the aforementioned performances and an excellent set by John Lee Beatty. It's McNally's best play since Master Class.