Neil Simon Theater
250 West 52nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Wednesday - Sunday through July 15, $49-$169
I remember sitting in the Walter Kerr Theatre nearly twenty-five years ago, on back-to-back nights, watching Tony Kushner’s landmark two-part Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, a shattering, eye-opening experience that destroyed and reconstructed the limits of the very art form itself. The Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations were over, but known deaths from AIDS in the United States were still rising — more than forty thousand in 1993 and more than thirty thousand in 1994 (to be followed by nearly fifty thousand in 1995 before a major corner in the treatment battle was turned). New York playwright Kushner brilliantly captured the wide-ranging horrors of the HIV/AIDS crisis from a sociopolitical, deeply personal angle in Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, nearly eight hours of intensely emotional theater, directed by George C. Wolfe. Angels is now back on Broadway, in a staggering, Olivier-winning Royal National Theatre production at the Neil Simon Theatre through July 15. Marianne Elliott, who won Tonys for her endlessly inventive direction of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and War Horse (the latter with codirector Tom Morris), has reimagined Angels for the modern age.
Millennium Approaches takes place in late 1985, with three interconnected stories moving between three changing, rotating sets cleverly designed by Ian MacNeil and beautifully lit by Paule Constable. Closeted attorney Roy M. Cohn (Nathan Lane), Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings, is a fast-paced, foul-mouthed wheeler dealer who, when told by his doctor (Susan Brown) that he has AIDS, insists, “No, Henry, no. AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.” Cohn is pulling strings to get law clerk Joe Pitt (Lee Pace) an important position in the Justice Department in Washington, but Joe doesn’t think the move will be good for his agoraphobic, Valium-addicted wife, Harper (Denise Gough). Meanwhile, when Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) explains to his boyfriend, legal word processor Louis Ironson (James McArdle), that he has Kaposi’s sarcoma and is going to die, Louis can’t handle it and leaves him. The three plots intersect and weave together powerfully as Kushner and Elliott explore the characters’ unwillingness to face some difficult truths about themselves regarding sexual identity, honesty, and responsibility; the only one who accepts his fate is Prior, who begins hearing voices and then is visited by an angel (Amanda Lawrence, or Beth Malone on Wednesdays) who declares him to be a prophet.
At the beginning of Perestroika, the world’s oldest Bolshevik, Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov (Brown), is standing at a podium in the Kremlin, announcing, “The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed? The Great Question before us is: Will the Past release us? The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In Time? And we all desire that Change will come.” Those theories are addressed as Joe’s Mormon mother (Lawrence/Malone) comes to New York to save him from sin; Prior’s ex-boyfriend, a nurse named Belize (Nathan Steward-Jarrett), is assigned to take care of the hospitalized Cohn, who is being haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Lawrence/Malone); Joe and Louis grow closer; and Prior’s health continues to worsen even as he believes he might very well be a prophet, ordered by the Angel to “Submit to the will of Heaven!” Perestroika is staged very differently from Millennium Approaches; the revolving sets are gone, replaced by an often empty space in which individual elements are either wheeled in by mysterious Angel Shadows (Rowan Ian Seamus Magee, Matty Oaks, Jane Pfitsch, Ron Todorowski, Silvia Vrskova, and Lucy York), rise from beneath, or descend from above. “Perhaps it can be said that Millennium is a play about security and certainty being blown apart, while Perestroika is about danger and possibility following the explosion,” Kushner explained in a note on an earlier version of the script. (He has revised Perestroika over the years for previous revivals.) “The plays benefit from a pared-down style of presentation, with scenery kept to an evocative and informative minimum. . . . I recommend rapid scene shifts (no blackouts!), employing the cast as well as stagehands in shifting the scene. This must be an actor-driven event.”
Angels is indeed an actor-driven event, with sensational performances from the cast of eight, each playing multiple parts. Brown (Husbands & Sons, Playing with Fire), Lawrence/Malone (Here We Go, Tristan and Yseult / Fun Home, Ring of Fire), and Stewart-Jarrett (Wig Out, The History Boys) are particularly busy, taking on more than a dozen roles among them. Lane (The Iceman Cometh, It’s Only a Play) gobbles up Cohn, words flowing out in a fury. Gough (People, Places & Things, Desire under the Elms) brings an endearing tenderness to Harper, Pace (The Normal Heart, Small Tragedy) is strong and firm as Joe wrestles with his demons, and McArdle (Platonov, A Month in the Country) plays Louis with a sensitivity that belies his often-questionable actions. But Garfield (Death of a Salesman, The Amazing Spider-Man) soars above them all, fully embodying Prior, who is the show’s heart and soul. His physical and psychological ailing is palpable as he fights his disease while trying to find his place in a world that is getting away from him, his fears, though, somewhat offset by his unending hope. Elliott ably balances major dramatic scenes, such as when Prior gets into a fierce confrontation with the Angel, whose wings are operated by the Angel Shadows, with intimate moments like when Harper hallucinates, along with a large dose of comedy amid the heartbreak. Millennium might be three and a half hours and Perestroika four, each with two intermissions, but it doesn’t feel that long; they smoothly flow across time, and don’t be surprised if you make friends with those around you, especially if you’re seeing both shows the same day in the same seats. Kushner (Homebody/Kabul, Caroline, or Change) wrote, “I believe that, once engaged, audiences rediscover the rewards of patience and effort and the pleasures of an epic journey. An epic play should be a little fatiguing; a rich, heady, hard-earned fatigue is among a long journey’s pleasures and rewards.” Twenty-five years after their Broadway debut, on a planet where one million people die annually from AIDS and tens of thousands of Americans still contract HIV every year, this epic journey is more than worthy of rediscovery, in a stunning revival that hits just as hard today as it did a quarter century ago.
Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Saturday through January 6, $97-$199
Revivals don’t get much better than Bartlett Sher’s absolutely loverly version of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. Sher, who previously helmed widely acclaimed productions of South Pacific and The King and I at Lincoln Center, has created an inspiring My Fair Lady for the twenty-first century, honoring the original while bringing the female-empowerment aspect of the story to the fore. The musical adaptation of (George) Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, itself inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, had thwarted Rodgers and Hammerstein as well as Frank Loesser, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter until Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe reunited after a brief separation and took on the tale. Outside the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in 1912, Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Lauren Ambrose) is selling violets. Dirty and shabbily dressed, she is nearly knocked over by the fashionable Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jordan Donica), and her flood of Cockney outrage earns her a harangue from Professor Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton), a linguistics expert who is so offended by the way she talks that he declares, “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere — no right to live. . . . Your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible; don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.” The next day, Eliza arrives at Higgins’s fancy Wimpole St. home, demanding vocal lessons to make her “more genteel.” Higgins, who has been joined by Col. Pickering (Allan Corduner), treats Eliza harshly, referring to her as “baggage,” but when Pickering offers to pay for her lessons as part of a bet that Higgins can turn her into a lady in time for the Embassy Ball in six months, the professor agrees to take her on. “She’s so deliciously low — so horribly dirty!” Higgins proclaims right in front of her. “I’ll make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe!”
It seems like an impossible task for Higgins, a misogynist of the first order. “I’m an ordinary man; / who desires nothing more / than just the ordinary chance / to live exactly as he likes / and do precisely what he wants,” he sings. “But let a woman in your life / and you are plunging in a knife! / Let the others of my sex / tie the knot — around their necks; / I’d prefer a new edition / of the Spanish Inquisition / than to ever let a woman in my life!” Before she is making any real progress, her drunkard of a father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Norbert Leo Butz), shows up at Higgins’s home, asking for money in exchange for Eliza, assuming there is something more than just speech lessons going on. “Have you no morals, man?” Pickering asks. “No, I can’t afford ’em, Governor. Neither could you if you was as poor as me,” Doolittle replies. They eventually come to an agreement, and Higgins gets back to work preparing Eliza for proper society. From the horse races at Ascot to the Embassy Ball and beyond, the relationship between Eliza and Henry further develops, taking both of them by surprise, especially the professor, who loses control over his creation. Meanwhile, Freddy begins courting Eliza, Alfred wants more money, and Higgins’s elegant mother (Diana Rigg) finds the whole thing rather funny.
My Fair Lady has featured such Eliza/Henry pairings as Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison (the 1956 Broadway original, directed by Moss Hart), Audrey Hepburn and Harrison (the 1964 film, which won eight Oscars), Christine Andreas and Ian Richardson (1978), Melissa Errico and Richard Chamberlain (1993), Martine McCutcheon and Jonathan Pryce (2001), and Errico and John Lithgow (2003), the difference in age between the man and the woman generally being twenty-five years or more. However, Ambrose (Six Feet Under, Exit the King) is actually three years older than Hadden-Paton (The Importance of Being Earnest, Downton Abbey), so Sher has them on more equal footing from the very start. Ambrose plays Eliza as a strong-willed, self-protective, astute woman who is determined to better herself, but on her own terms. Meanwhile, Hadden-Paton’s Henry has cracks in his armor that show up early, particularly as Eliza gains pride and power, right up through the gripping finale. Corduner is superb as the eminently likable Pickering (Titanic, Taken at Midnight), while Tony and Emmy winner Rigg (Medea, The Avengers) nearly steals the show as Mrs. Higgins, looking ever-so-chic in Catherine Zuber’s elaborate gowns and Tom Watson’s sophisticated coiffures. (How often does an actress who doesn’t sing a word get nominated for a Tony in a musical?)
Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli and Tony-winning music director Ted Sperling, who both collaborated on Sher’s South Pacific and The King and I, do fabulous jobs here too, particularly in the “Ascot Gavotte” and “Embassy Waltz” scenes but also during wonderful interpretations of “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “You Did It,” “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and “The Rain in Spain.” Michael Yeargan’s dramatic sets further the class division prevalent in 1912 London as well as today. Higgins’s ornate yet refined home slides toward the audience from backstage, revolving from the elegant study to the front hall to the bath and other rooms. When Wimpole St. recedes backstage, the ensemble wheels in rickety DIY-style fences, light poles, and storefront facades. In 1908, Oscar Straus adapted Shaw’s Arms and the Man into The Chocolate Soldier; in 1939, when Shaw was asked about letting Kurt Weill adapt The Devil’s Disciple, he responded, “Nothing will ever induce me to allow any other play of mine to be degraded into an operetta or set to any music except its own.” Shaw died in 1950 at the age of ninety-four; My Fair Lady, with book and lyrics by Lerner and music by Loewe, premiered six years later. We’ll never know what Shaw would have thought of it, but the rest of us can now delight in Sher’s magical 2018 production, which is a smashing success, a classic musical with a fresh, bright take on class and gender issues that is just right for these crazy times.
222 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Saturday through August 11, $69-$199
There’s quite a party going on eight times a week at the Booth Theatre, but along with all the drinking and dancing is a whole lot of internalized fear and self-loathing. Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking, controversial play, The Boys in the Band, is making its Broadway debut in a raucous fiftieth-anniversary adaptation lavishly directed by Joe Mantello. Originally presented in 1968, when it ran downtown for more than two years (totaling a thousand and one performances), the revival opened tonight at the Booth Theatre, not showing a bit of its age — aside from its rotary phones. Much has happened in the intervening half century, from the Stonewall Riots to the AIDS crisis to the legalization of same-sex marriage, but The Boys in the Band — the title comes from a line in the 1954 Judy Garland / James Mason film A Star Is Born — still is compelling, a bitter, searing look at the inner struggle many gay men experience in their life, both staying in and coming out of the closet. Over the years, the play has been accused of being hateful and mean-spirited, of spreading gay stereotypes, promoting offensive language, and hindering the advancement of homosexuals in society at large; it has also been praised for helping men come to terms with their sexual identity and to join the fight for gay rights. Frighteningly, several original cast members died of AIDS. But now, for the first time in the show’s history, every member of the cast is gay and out, in addition to Crowley, Mantello, and one of the producers, which is cause for joy all on its own, on various levels. It also helps that the show is still tantalizing and involving and packs a punch, literally as well as figuratively.
The Boys in the Band takes place more or less in real time in Michael’s (Jim Parsons) lovely duplex in the East Fifties, decorated with fancy mirrors, glass walls, a central staircase, and comfy chairs and couches. (The set and costumes are by the always innovative David Zinn, with splendid lighting by Hugh Vanstone.) Michael, who is worried about his receding hairline and has recently stopped drinking, is hosting a birthday party for his best friend, the acerbic Harold (Zachary Quinto), who is turning thirty-two. Before the fête, Donald asks Michael who is coming. “I think you know everybody anyway — they’re the same old tired fairies you’ve seen around since day one. Actually, there’ll be seven, counting Harold and you and me,” Michael says. “Are you calling me a screaming queen or a tired fairy?” Donald replies. “Oh, I beg your pardon — six tired, screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer,” Michael shoots back. That language, now considered “hate speech” by millennials and others, sets the tone of much of the discourse that follows; it’s also not nearly as shocking now as it was in 1968. The invited guests are Michael’s part-time lover, the ruggedly handsome Donald (Matt Bomer); flaming queen Emory (Robin De Jesús); Michael’s good friend Larry (Andrew Rannells) and his new beau, Hank (Tuc Watkins), who has left his wife and children; and the respectable, dignified Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington). Michael’s straight college roommate, Alan (Brian Hutchison), arrives unexpectedly from Washington, bringing his own set of heterosexual problems; also joining in the festivities is Cowboy (Charlie Carver), an adorable, if not very bright, male prostitute who is one of Harold’s gifts. As the alcohol flows and the music swirls, there’s plenty of needling and not-too-subtle flirting, but when Michael insists they all play a telephone game, things get quickly out of hand as the barbs become much more pointed and hurtful, led by Michael’s vicious mean streak. “Sounds like there’s, how you say, trouble in paradise,” Michael says about a lover’s quarrel. “If there isn’t, I think you’ll be able to stir up some,” Harold offers.
The Boys in the Band is viciously funny as it takes on gay stereotypes without exploiting them. In 2018 the effect is somewhat different from 1968 (it was also made into a film in 1970 by William Friedkin and was previously revived in New York in 1996 and 2010) in that the audience now sees characters who are gay, not gay characters, a paradigm shift in the widespread acceptance of gay culture throughout much of America, revolutionized by the gay community’s response to the vice squad raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969, which essentially set the gay pride movement in motion. As mounted by two-time Tony winner Mantello (The Humans, Love! Valour! Compassion!) — who played Louis in the original Broadway production of Angels in America in 1993-94, the seminal “Gay Fantasia” that is currently being spectacularly revived at the Neil Simon Theatre — the show focuses on individual identity. What matters is what’s going on at the party itself, not what might be occurring outside in a world that today is more sensitive to the LGBTQ community. Instead of being stereotypes, the characters now feel more real, genuine examples of the diversity among gay men while honoring that difference. “Everybody’s just a little bit homosexual, whether they like it or not,” Allen Ginsberg sang. In The Boys in the Band, that might even extend to Alan, who is married with two kids but seems instantly attracted to Hank — perhaps primarily because he sees so much of himself in Larry’s lover.
All these years later, it is evident that Crowley, who wrote a sequel, The Men from the Boys, in 2002, captured more than just a moment in time; he was embracing individuality as well as the very zeitgeist of homosexuality, even as the party devolves amid the onslaught of personal demons coming to the fore. Crowley also touches on racism and anti-Semitism in addition to homophobia. When Michael is upset that Bernard allows Emory to use the N-word but not him, Bernard, the only black character, explains, “He can do it, Michael. I can do it. But you can’t do it.” That warning also serves as a clever way to take back the oft-criticized gay language in the show, telling the audience who can say what when, that gays own a specific vocabulary just as blacks do. The ensemble cast is outstanding, and judging from all the publicity the actors and crew members have been doing, they seem to be having tons of fun performing the 110-minute intermissionless play. Parsons (An Act of God, Harvey) and Hutchison (La Cage aux Folles, Mamma Mia!) are particularly effective, as their characters change the most during the party. It all might not be as radical or subversive as it once was, but this version is extremely effective in making all of us, gay or straight or trans, etc., consider how far we’ve come as a society while understanding how much more we still have to accomplish. Perhaps The Boys in the Band will be more of a dusty time-capsule piece in 2068, when it turns one hundred.
Tickets are still available for the sixty-third annual Drama Desk Awards, honoring the best of theater June 3 at the Town Hall. Founded in 1949, the Drama Desk (of which I am a voting member) does not differentiate between Broadway, off Broadway, and off off Broadway; all shows that meet the minimum requirements are eligible. Thus, splashy, celebrity-driven productions can find themselves nominated against experimental shows that took place in an East Village gymnasium or a military armory. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of star power at the awards presentation. Among the nominees this year are Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, and James McArdle from Angels in America, Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf from Three Tall Women, LaChanze from Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Tina Fey for her book for Mean Girls, Paul Sparks from At Home at the Zoo, Joshua Henry and Jessie Mueller from Carousel, Daphne Rubin-Vega from Miss You Like Hell, Billy Crudup from Harry Clarke, David Morse from The Iceman Cometh, Diana Rigg from My Fair Lady, and New York City Ballet soloist Justin Peck for his choreography for Carousel. Among those not making the cut were Mark Rylance in Farinelli and the King, Denzel Washington in The Iceman Cometh, Lauren Ambrose and Norbert Leo Butz in My Fair Lady, Condola Rashad in Saint Joan, Amy Schumer in Meteor Shower, Michael Cera in Lobby Hero, and Renée Fleming in Carousel, but that makes room for lesser-known performers in smaller plays that are also worthy of recognition. The awards will be hosted again by Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Buyer & Cellar) and will feature stripped-down, intimate performances from some nominated shows. Tickets start at $68 for the event; the $325 package gets you into the after-party, where you can mingle with the nominees, winners, and other stars.
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 17, $59-$252
“I’m finding this conversation extremely hard to follow,” Henry Carr (Tom Hollander) tells Tristan Tzara (Seth Numrich) in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, which is being revived in a thoroughly entertaining Roundabout production at the American Airlines Theatre through June 17. The playwright is famous for his complex plot lines and dialogue, but in Travesties, as in such other Stoppard works as Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia, and The Invention of Love, you need not get every literary or political reference in order to have a grand old time. In 1917, British diplomat Carr, Romanian Dada leader Tzara, Irish writer James Joyce (Peter McDonald), and Russian Communist revolutionary V. I. Lenin (Dan Butler) were all in neutral Zurich as WWI raged. In Travesties, Stoppard imagines the four men interacting at the Zurich Public Library and Carr’s apartment as Joyce (in a mismatched suit) shares limericks (“A librarianness of Zurisssh / only emerged from her niche / when a lack of response / to Ruhe Bitte. Silence! / Obliged her to utter the plea.”) and writes what would become Ulysses, the monocle-wearing Tzara spouts Dada doctrines (“All literature is obscene! The classics – tradition – vomit on it!”), and Lenin makes party declarations while writing Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (“We must say to you bourgeois individualists that your talk about absolute freedom is sheer hypocrisy. There can be no real and effective freedom in a society based on the power of money.”). Meanwhile, Carr sues Joyce over a pair of trousers involved in a presentation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. (That part is actually true.) Also adding to the marvelous mayhem are Bennett (Patrick Kerr), Carr’s very well informed butler; Nadya (Opal Alladin), Lenin’s wife; Gwendolyn (Scarlett Strallen), Carr’s younger sister; and Cecily (Sara Topham, who portrayed Wilde’s Cecily in a 2012 production of Earnest at the McCarter Theatre), the astute librarian.
Travesties is told from the point of view of Carr, an unreliable narrator who is telling the story half a century later as an old man in a ratty hat. Many scenes are repeated, slightly differently, in what Stoppard calls “time-slips,” accompanied by a flashing light and darkness, as if Carr’s sketchy memory is making a do-over. (The lighting design is by Neil Austin, with sound and music by Adam Cork.) In 1975, Stoppard told the Village Voice, “I must make clear that, insofar as it’s possible for me to look at my own work objectively at all, the element which I find most valuable is the one that most people are put off by — that is, that there is very often no single, clear statement in my plays. What there is, is a series of conflicting statements made by conflicting characters, and they tend to play a sort of infinite leap-frog.” That leap-frogging also applies to Stoppard’s judicious use of repurposed quotes from Shakespeare (Hamlet, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, others), Ulysses, and, primarily, The Importance of Being Earnest while commenting on the state of art itself. “The idea of the artist as a special kind of human being is art’s greatest achievement, and it’s a fake!” Carr says. “A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters. He may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat,” Tzara explains. “What now of the Trojan War if it had been passed over by the artist’s touch? Dust. A forgotten expedition prompted by Greek merchants looking for new markets,” Joyce relates. “The sole duty and justification for art is social criticism,” Cecily tells Carr. And Lenin declares, “Literature must become a part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog in the Social democratic mechanism.”
Travesties takes place on Tim Hatley’s literary set, a wood-paneled library with stacks and stacks of blank books lined up on shelves and typescript pages scattered across the floor, along with a piano that Carr occasionally plays. (Hatley also designed the splendid costumes.) Stoppard originally asked his friend Patrick Marber to recommend potential directors for this revival, but Marber ultimately suggested himself, and Stoppard agreed. Stoppard also agreed to some changes, adding back elements from the 1974 version and cutting things from a later published edition. Marber (Dealer’s Choice, Don Juan in Soho) celebrates Stoppard’s love of language and controlled chaos in the unpredictable madcap farce, which never slows down for an instant and keeps audiences at the ready for just about anything to happen. Tony and Olivier nominee Hollander (Way of the World, Hotel in Amsterdam) is utterly delightful as Carr, revealing himself to be a wildly gifted comic actor with a firm grasp of the absurd. The rest of the cast is equally adept at mixing sociopolitical commentary with lovely tomfoolery and physical comedy. “Oh, what nonsense you talk!” Tzara tells Carr, who responds, “It may be nonsense, but at least it’s clever nonsense.” Tzara retorts, “I am sick of cleverness. In point of fact, everything is Chance,” to which Carr says, “That sounds awfully clever.” A moment later, Carr tells Tzara, “Oh, what nonsense you talk!,” to which Tzara explains, “But at least it’s not clever nonsense.” Such is Stoppard’s Travesties, in a nutshell.
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday/Wednesday - Friday/Saturday through December 15, $75-$800
A few minutes into Springsteen on Broadway, sirens could be heard outside the Walter Kerr Theatre. Bruce, who was standing at the front microphone, acoustic guitar strapped across his chest, backed away, looked offstage, and said, “They’re coming to get me. They know I don’t belong here.” If there’s one thing the New Jersey native has proved since October 3, 2017, it’s that he is right at home on the Great White Way, so much so that what was initially a limited run through November 26 of that year has been extended several times, now through December 15 of this year. And despite most tickets going for $400 to $800 a pop, the shows still sold out in minutes. The Boss is famous for his four-hour concerts with the E Street Band, but Springsteen on Broadway is more reminiscent of his solo tours behind such records as The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust. Yet it is not a concert; written and directed by Bruce, Springsteen on Broadway is a moving, powerful exploration of a man and his innate, unquenchable desire to become a successful musician. Inspired by a secret performance he presented to President Barack Obama and about 250 White House staffers as a thank-you just before the end of Obama’s second term, Springsteen has crafted a two-hour show that combines personal stories from his childhood to the current day with songs from throughout his career. Many of the intimate tales are adapted from his bestselling 2016 memoir, Born to Run, but this is no mere book reading with music. The sixty-eight-year-old Springsteen has always been an engaging storyteller, and he takes it to the next level on Broadway, unafraid to reveal his faults along with his triumphs. As he details, years of therapy have helped him face his demons.
On the road, Springsteen changes his setlist night after night, playing deep cuts, reinventing old favorites, and taking requests, reacting to signs held up in the crowd, but Springsteen on Broadway is a much tighter affair, even if it feels loose and improvisational. Heather Wolensky’s spare set evokes the feel of a small club, with music trunks scattered about, a piano at stage left, a glass of water on a stool, and a bare brick wall, with no adornment anywhere. Going back and forth between guitar and piano, Springsteen, in a black T-shirt, boots, and jeans, plays fifteen songs related to episodes from his life, from acquiring his first guitar to jamming in clubs in Asbury Park, from falling in love to raising a family. He discusses his relationship with both his father, which he has documented in many songs, and his beloved mother, for whom he wrote one of his sweetest tunes. He often steps away from the microphone while continuing to talk or sing, his voice fading from the speakers but instead gently and dramatically drifting across the theater. To give away any of the numbers would be unfair, so you’ll find no spoilers here, but know that he doesn’t stray from the script, except for a few shows when his wife, singer-songwriter Patti Scialfa, was sick and he replaced one section of the show with a different story and song about raising his kids.
And proper etiquette demands that you don’t sing along; at one point, as some audience members started to join Bruce on one of his biggest hits, he stopped and said, “You know this is a fucking one-man show, right?” He later encouraged audience participation on a treasured classic. “My vision of these shows is to make them as personal and intimate as possible. I chose Broadway for this project because it has the beautiful old theaters which seemed like the right setting for what I have in mind,” Springsteen explained in a statement announcing the run. “My show is just me, the guitar, the piano, and the words and music. Some of the show is spoken, some of it is sung, all of it together is in pursuit of my constant goal — to communicate something of value.” As he has been doing since the late 1960s, Springsteen has again communicated something of value. Early in the show, the Grammy, Oscar, and now Tony winner — Bruce has been awarded a special Tony for his “once-in-a-lifetime theatregoing experience” — notes that he has spent his entire existence avoiding the dreaded five-day-a-week job. But now he can’t get enough of it, all told spending more than a year on Broadway, sharing his poignant, personal, life-affirming story as only he can.
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 10, $65-$159
“There is something about her,” men say of Saint Joan, the title character in Bernard Shaw’s 1923 play. There is also something about Condola Rashad, who portrays Joan in the current Manhattan Theatre Club revival at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Rashad has now appeared in five Broadway shows, earning four Tony nominations, for Stick Fly, The Trip to Bountiful, A Doll’s House, Part 2, and Saint Joan. (She was also nominated for a Drama Desk Award for her 2009 off-Broadway debut, Ruined, but got shut out as Juliet in a misbegotten Broadway revival of Romeo and Juliet in 2013.) The thirty-one-year-old Rashad is charming as Joan, a teenage farm girl in 1429 who claims that Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine speak to her and that God has commanded her to lead the French to victory in Orleans against the occupying English so the hapless Dauphin (Adam Chanler-Berat) can claim the throne as King Charles VII. She joins a luminous roster of actresses who have played Saint Joan, including Wendy Hiller, Uta Hagen, Joan Plowright, Jean Seberg, Imelda Staunton, Imogen Stubbs, Amy Irving, and Diana Sands, the only other black woman to portray Joan in a major production, at Lincoln Center in 1968. Rashad’s Joan is sweet-natured but determined, gentle yet forceful, a kind of hero just right for the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter generation. Joan goes about the world of men — Rashad is the only woman in the cast, among twelve actors, save for a brief appearance by Mandi Masden as the Duchess de la Trémouille — with an ease that emanates from her faith.
Military squires, royals, and religious leaders disparage Joan until they meet her, slowly falling under her captivating spell. Robert de Baudricourt (Patrick Page) brags about how he “burns witches and hangs thieves,” but Joan tells him, “They all say I am mad until I talk to them, squire. But you see that it is the will of God that you are to do what He has put into my mind,” and he does. Captain La Hire (Lou Sumrall) calls her “an angel dressed as a soldier.” Charles might not want to be king, but Joan is on a holy mission to see that he is crowned at Rheims Cathedral. “If the English win, it is they that will make the treaty: and then God help poor France!” she tells Charles. “You must fight, Charlie, whether you will or no. I will go first to hearten thee. We must take our courage in both hands: aye, and pray for it with both hands too.” But after she impossibly takes Orleans despite being massively outnumbered and then urges the campaign continue on to recapture Paris, the military, the church, and the monarchy realize her power and turn on her, trying her for sins that could get her burned at the stake.
Scott Pask’s set is dominated by large gold pipes hanging from above, as if the entire play takes place inside a giant church organ, spreading Joan’s religious message. “It is in the bells I hear my voices,” Joan tells Jack Dunois (Daniel Sunjata), who ably fights by her side. “Not today, when they all rang: that was nothing but jangling. But here in this corner, where the bells come down from heaven, and the echoes linger, or in the fields, where they come from a distance through the quiet of the countryside, my voices are in them.” Shaw (who preferred not to use the first name George) famously said, “I’m an atheist and I thank God for it”; in writing the play, he was trying to neither convert anyone nor convince them to leave the fold, nor was he creating a biblical-style story of good versus evil. In a preface to the published edition, Shaw wrote, “There are no villains in the piece. . . . It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us.” Shaw, who also wrote such works as Pygmalion, Major Barbara and Man and Superman and won the Nobel Prize shortly after Saint Joan, does not include any superheroes either. “I am not a daredevil: I am a servant of God,” Joan says to Dunois. “My heart is full of courage, not of anger. I will lead; and your men will follow: that is all I can do. But I must do it: you shall not stop me.”
The exemplary cast also features Max Gordon Moore as Bluebeard, Walter Bobbie as the Bishop of Beauvais, John Glover as the Archbishop of Rheims, Matthew Saldivar as Bertrand de Poulengey, Robert Stanton as Baudricourt’s steward, Russell G. Jones as Monseigneur de la Trémouille, and Jack Davenport as the Earl of Warwick. Most of the actors play more than one role; Page is particularly impressive as Baudricourt and the Inquisitor. Daniel Sullivan’s (The Little Foxes, Proof) direction can get a little bumpy though there are several deft touches, and at nearly three hours, the show can be a little trying. Which brings us to the rather campy epilogue. Shaw wrote Saint Joan in 1923, three years after her canonization, something he deals with in the somewhat surreal, comic, and arguably out-of-place conclusion. “As to the epilogue, I could hardly be expected to stultify myself by implying that Joan’s history in the world ended unhappily with her execution, instead of beginning there,” Shaw wrote. “It was necessary by hook or crook to shew the canonized Joan as well as the incinerated one; for many a woman has got herself burnt by carelessly whisking a muslin skirt into the drawing-room fireplace, but getting canonized is a different matter, and a more important one. So I am afraid the epilogue must stand.” And so it does, for better or worse.