225 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Wednesday - Sunday through January 14, $59-$229
The new production of Hello, Dolly!, which is breaking house records at the Shubert Theatre, is everything that is wrong with Broadway. The fourth revival of the hit musical that debuted on the Great White Way in 1964 is, more than ever, a star vehicle with more than its share of glitz and glamour masking an old-fashioned story that is mediocre at best and downright embarrassing at worst. Grammy, Tony, and Emmy winner Bette Midler, who has also been nominated for two Oscars, has taken over a role she was seemingly born to play, a part most identified with Carol Channing but also portrayed by such other prominent leading ladies as Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, and Ethel Merman onstage and by Barbra Streisand in Gene Kelly’s 1969 film. Now seventy-one (Channing was forty-three when she originated the role), Midler has charm and energy to spare, if not quite the pipes and the moves; her every utterance and shuffle are met with wild cheers of delight from the worshipful audience. And Midler plays off the crowd to the hilt, posturing and preening for maximum effect even as we hope she manages to avoid the long, narrow opening to the unseen pit orchestra below. The show, directed by four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks (Guys and Dolls, Lend Me a Tenor) and choreographed by Warren Carlyle (After Midnight) — Gower Champion was responsible for both in 1964 — is chock-full of razzle-dazzle, including fabulously colorful costumes by Santo Loquasto, who also designed the sets, which range from the glamorous Harmonia Gardens Restaurant to the homey Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed shop in Yonkers.
But this version is really more of a cabaret-circus variety show than a fully fledged Broadway musical; Michael Stewart’s book, based on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, boasts a silly narrative that is not exactly a boost to the fight for women’s equality, and Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics are rather dilapidated all these years later. Midler stars as Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widowed matchmaker trying to convince fussy, sort-of-wealthy widower Horace Vandergelder (David Hyde-Pierce) to let his whiny niece, Ermengarde (Melanie Moore), marry starving artist Ambrose Kemper (Will Burton) while also laying a trap to get Horace for herself while introducing him to young and beautiful milliner Irene Molloy (Kate Baldwin) and the very odd Ernestina Money (Jennifer Simard). Heading off to New York City for a parade, Horace leaves his two clerks, Cornelius Hackl (Gavin Creel) and Barnaby Tucker (Taylor Trensch), in charge of the store, but they decide it’s time for them to get away as well, sneaking off to New York, where Cornelius falls for Irene and Barnaby takes a liking to Minnie Fay (Beanie Feldstein), Irene’s assistant.
In the big city, much zaniness ensues, from run-of-the-mill slapstick comedy (Cornelius and Barnaby hiding from Horace in Irene’s shop) to a long, cringeworthy scene in Harmonia Gardens that plays off the rich vs. poor theme with a series of unfunny sight gags. And “The Waiters’ Gallop,” in which the talented ensemble gets caught up in ever-more-precarious situations, boasts creative props and terrific costumes, but it’s a real showstopper in both senses of the word; not only does the crowd go gaga over it, clapping again and again and again, but it brings the narrative to a screeching halt. It’s merely an excuse for everyone to show off, and show off they do, even though it has little to do with the story. It certainly doesn’t help that there’s zero chemistry between any of the potential love matches, particularly, and most egregiously, Dolly and Horace; at times it’s like Midler (I’ll Eat You Last) and Hyde-Pierce (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), who does his fair share of flaunting, are in two different shows. Through it all, though, there’s Bette, who never really inhabits the role but plays herself playing the character while basking in the unending attention, the love bursting forth from the audience at her every knowing smirk; the Shubert practically explodes when she emerges in her glittering red dress for the title song, but it’s Bette who’s being celebrated, not Dolly. For many, that appears to be more than enough. And that’s really too bad, because by then, the parade had already passed by. (Donna Murphy will play Dolly on Tuesday nights beginning June 13 and for select performances through the run of the show; it should be intriguing to see how it holds up when the Divine Miss M is not front and center.)
Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Saturday through June 18, $87-$147
In 1993, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, a Norwegian couple reached out to Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in an effort to foster peace in the Middle East. The clandestine back-channel talks, which led to the historic and controversial Oslo Accords, are dramatized in J. T. Rogers’s gripping play, Oslo, which has seamlessly moved from Lincoln Center’s downstairs Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater to its Broadway venue, the Vivian Beaumont. The always excellent Jefferson Mays stars as sociologist Terje Rød-Larsen, the head of the Fafo Institute for Applied Sciences, who sees such events as the tearing down of the Berlin Wall as an opportunity to facilitate the peace process between violent enemies Israel and the PLO. “My God, if Leningrad can revert to St. Petersburg, anything is possible,” he says. “Are you seriously suggesting Rabin talk peace with the man the Israelis call Hitler in his lair?” Norwegian foreign minister Johan Jorgen Holst (T. Ryder Smith) asks in disbelief. “Johan Jorgen, you don’t make peace with the people you have dinner parties with. You make peace with the people who bomb your markets and blow up your buses,” Larsen answers. Larsen is joined by his wife, Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), who occasionally addresses the audience directly, as a sort of narrator. “To clarify: Johan Jorgen is married to Marianne [Henny Russell], who works for Terje, who is married to me, who, as of tomorrow, works for Johan Jorgen. In Norway we take nepotism to an entirely new level,” she says with a smile. Larsen and Juul believe that by using “gradualism,” they can bring Israel and the PLO to the table, even though Israeli law makes it illegal for an Israeli official to speak with a member of the PLO.
“This new model — my model — is rooted not in the organizational but in the personal, a process of negotiation allowing the most implacable of adversaries to focus on a single issue of contention, resolve it, then move on to the next single issue, as they gradually build a bond of trust,” Larsen explains. Secretly arriving in Norway are PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), aka Abu Ala; official PLO liaison Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani), an avowed communist with an intense distrust of Jews; and Haifa economics professors Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins), who have been chosen by Israeli deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin (Adam Dannheisser) to represent Israel in an unofficial capacity. Larsen and Juul put their plan into action, attempting to inject a positive attitude into the proceedings in order to get the negotiators talking. They are assisted by housekeeper Toril Grandal (Russell), who makes a mean plate of waffles, and her husband, groundsman Finn Grandal (Smith). Soon, despite their massive differences, Abu Al, Hirschfeld, Asfour, and Pundak are making progress, but without official acknowledgment from Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres (Oreskes) and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the talks threaten to fall apart, until wildly unpredictable Israeli foreign ministry director-general Uri Savir (Michael Aronov) shows up.
Sociopolitical playwright Rogers (Madagascar, The Overwhelming) was introduced by director Bartlett Sher to the real Larsen and Juul following a performance of their previous Lincoln Center Theater collaboration, Blood and Gifts (which also starred Mays and Aronov), about diplomacy during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Thus, Oslo is based on firsthand research, although Rogers points out, “To be clear, it is my version of this history.” Michael Yeargan’s set features a large backdrop with double doors through which the four negotiators often disappear; the audience is not privy to what is going on behind. In addition, huge images of Middle East violence are projected onto the wall. Together, the size of the wall and the videos make Larsen and Juul often appear small, which was the couple’s intention, as they saw themselves as mere facilitators, minor players in this major undertaking. Tony winner Mays (A Gentleman’s Guide to Murder, I Am My Own Wife) is outstanding as Larsen, balancing fear and excitement as he puts himself out on a limb in trying to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Tony winner Ehle (The Coast of Utopia, The Real Thing) excels as his equal partner in this dangerous venture, the unseen backbone ostensibly serving as an amiable hostess and direct liaison to the audience. Despite its nearly three-hour length, the play flies by, with Tony winner Sher (South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza) keeping things moving at a smooth police-procedural-like pace. Rogers’s script melds the comic and the surreal, the serious and the wacky in translating this most unlikely of scenarios into an utterly gripping yet tenderly intimate tale. Of course, nearly a quarter-century later, peace is still a pipe dream in the Middle East, and the theory of gradualism has not exactly taken hold in international diplomacy. But for a fascinating moment in time, two Norwegians offered more than a glimmer of hope, something the world can use a whole lot more of.
235 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 7, $69-$189
A kind of cult — er, rather large fan base — has grown up around Anastasia, Don Bluth’s 1997 animated movie about the fall of the Romanovs in Russia and the possible survival of one of the tsar’s daughters. When I went to see the new musical version, which opened last night at the Broadhurst, the theater was packed with big groups of young girls who were giddy with delight at the prospect of seeing their beloved movie brought to life on the stage; they then proceeded to shriek in unison at their favorite romantic scenes, making the experience feel like The Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles appeared. The many twentysomething women in the audience were perhaps less giddy than wistful and teary-eyed as they watched the theatricalization of a film that has meant so much to them since they first saw the animated movie back in the late 1990s, when they were the same age as the shrieking girls are now. Thus, the show appears to have a built-in, review-proof audience. They oohed and aahed during the disappointing first act, set in St. Petersburg in 1906-7, 1917, and 1927, which catered to the younger fans at the expense of the story, but the second act, set in 1927 Paris, was enchanting, taking a far more adult approach, a treat for young and old alike.
Anastasia features a book by four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion!) and music and lyrics by Tony winners Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the same trio that turned E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime into a hit musical in 1998; Flaherty and Ahrens wrote the score for the animated film, and six of those songs, including the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past,” are in the Broadway show, along with sixteen new tunes. Neither of the Fox films was completely true to the real story of the Romanovs and Anastasia, and McNally has fiddled with the truth as well, but this is not historical fiction as much as romantic fantasy. The Grand Duchess Anastasia (first played by Nicole Scimeca, then Molly Rushing and Christy Altomare as she grows up) is one of four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II (Constantine Germanacos) and Tsarina Alexandra (Lauren Blackman), who live in luxury in the royal palace, shut off from the real world. Old Russia is coming to an end, but the only one who seems to realize that is the tsar’s mother, the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil), who decides to spend her declining years in Paris. The seven-year-old Anastasia wants to go with her beloved grandmother, who gives her a special music box to remember her by until Anastasia can come visit her. Ten years later, the Romanovs are still awash in elegance and finery when they are attacked during the Bolshevik revolution, as the Communists take control of Russia.
Amid postrevolutionary poverty and destitution, rumors swirl that Anastasia might still be alive. Seeking a reward, Dmitry (Derek Klena) and Vlad (John Bolton) try to find a girl they can train to be an impostor, then present to the Dowager Empress. Also on the hunt for Anastasia is Czekist Gleb Vaganov (Ramin Karimloo), a rising star in the Communist Party who wants to make sure all of the Romanovs are dead. He meets and offers help to a street sweeper named Anya (Altomare), but she refuses. Dmitry and Vlad soon believe that Anya, suffering from amnesia, is the right girl for their plan. As they scheme to escape to Paris in 1927 and bring Anya to the Dowager Empress, little memories come back to Anya that hint that she might actually be the real Anastasia. In creating a new telling of the true story, McNally has replaced the evil, villainous Rasputin with the significantly more human, heartthrob-handsome Gleb, while also creating the energetic and fun-loving Countess Lily (Caroline O’Connor), the Dowager Empress’s lady-in-waiting and a potential love interest for Vlad. Choreographer Peggy Hickey offers numerous dances as the action moves from 1906 Russia to 1927 France, including a troika, a waltz, the Charleston, and even ballet, making excellent use of Linda Cho’s costumes, which range from spectacular ball gowns to peasant drab. Meanwhile, Aaron Rhyne’s projections, which often evoke travel, get more creative once the maps go away, enhancing Alexander Dodge’s cleverly functional set. Tony-winning director Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, The Killer) can’t save the dreary sentimentality of the first act but really opens things up in the vastly more entertaining second act, which begins with “Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart),” immediately letting us know that things are going to get better. All the while, the shrieking continues, culminating in a rafters-shaking noise at the finale. Spoiler alert: Ten years ago, the real Anastasia’s bones were found, with DNA evidence confirming that she died with the rest of her family in the Bolshevik attack. Of course, McNally, et al. opt for a different ending for the musical, and you’ll be very glad they did.
249 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 3, $59-$189
The best musical on Broadway — yes, that includes Hamilton — will be going through a major casting change over the next few months involving the rather critical character of Pierre. But there’s no need to worry, as the show has proved since its debut at tiny Ars Nova in 2012 and subsequent move to a Meatpacking District tent before being presented at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard on its way to the current smash Broadway engagement. Superstar crooner Josh Groban will be playing Pierre through July 2, after which Oak Onaodowan, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in Hamilton and plays Afrika Bambaataa in The Get Down, will take over. In addition, Groban’s superb understudy, Scott Stangland, will play Pierre on April 25, and the original Pierre, Dave Malloy, who wrote the book, music, lyrics, and orchestrations, will appear as his complex creation May 4-9 and June 13, 20, and 27. I have seen all three Pierres, and I can unequivocally say that it does not matter who you see as the downtrodden shell of a man who admits, “I never thought that I’d end up like this / I used to be better.” I actually preferred Stangland to Groban, the former more natural in the role of a man caught up in romantic intrigue in early-nineteenth-century Russia, based on a section of Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace. Malloy was delightful as Pierre in the eighty-seven-seat Ars Nova, where the vodka poured freely. It’s really a no-lose situation, as Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 features such a large and talented ensemble cast and is so spectacularly staged by Rachel Chavkin that you shouldn’t go, or not go, simply based on star power. It’s an extraordinary electro-pop opera no matter who is onstage any given night.
149 West 45th St. between Broadway & Sixth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 30, $30-$139
About fifteen minutes before The Play That Goes Wrong was scheduled to begin, there was a commotion at the front of the stage involving several members of the crew. Concerned, I got close to hear what was going on. A woman who appeared to be the stage manager saw me and approached, a worried look on her face. “Have you seen Winston?” she asked me. “Winston?” I replied. “Yes, our dog. He’s missing and we need to find him,” she said, beginning a search through the aisles as the audience wandered in. Aha! The show had already started. In order for The Play That Goes Wrong to be successful, a whole lot of very intricate details and prearranged problems have to go completely right. Fortunately, they do, resulting in one of the funniest plays to hit Broadway in many a season. The Olivier Award–winning British import channels Noises Off, Fawlty Towers, Buster Keaton, and One Man, Two Guvnahs in an uproarious madcap farce that leaves no stone unturned in its wildly inventive quest to celebrate the unpredictability of live theater with superbly choreographed ineptitude. Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields of the Mischief Theatre Company and gleefully directed by Mark Bell, their former teacher at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, The Play That Goes Wrong portrays the opening night of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s ill-begotten production of the fictional Susan H. K. Bridewell’s The Murder at Haversham Manor, a traditional British mystery set in the winter of 1922. In the play within a play, Charles Haversham (Greg Tannahill as Jonathan Harris) has been murdered, and the wily Inspector Carter (Shields as director Chris Bean) has arrived on the scene to interview the suspects, who include Charles’s brother, Cecil (Dave Hearn as Max Bennett); Charles’s fiancée and Cecil’s lover, Florence Colleymoore (Charlie Russell as Sandra Wilkinson); Florence’s brother, Thomas (Lewis as Robert Grove); Charles’s gardener, Arthur (Bennett); and Charles’s butler, Perkins (Sayer as Dennis Tyde). As the play, well, goes very wrong, the crew gets involved too, including sound engineer Trevor (Rob Falconer) and stage manager Annie (usually played by Nancy Zamit, but we saw the excellent Bryony Corrigan in her debut in the role).
One of the keys to the success of The Play That Goes Wrong, which boasts J. J. Abrams as one of its producers — he saw the show in London on a lark and became immediately enamored of it — is that the script is extremely tight and specific; the stage notes explain that “the actors of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society are not bad actors but the victims of unfortunate circumstances. . . . In essence, it is vital everyone works to present ‘the play that goes wrong,’ not ‘the play that’s being done badly.’ As the intrigue builds, so do the company’s never-ending troubles, as doors won’t open or close, cues are missed, props are mixed up or break, words are mispronounced, pieces of Nigel Hook’s set fall apart, and characters keep getting knocked out. The humor even extends to the Playbill itself, with fake ads and bios. In addition, there is occasional audience participation — it just so happens that Bennett appreciates midscene applause, and keep a look-out for that ledger. Part of the joyous fun is trying to anticipate what might get screwed up next — as well as wondering if there are any real mistakes, made by the cast, sound designer Andy Johnson, or lighting designer Ric Mountjoy. But the immensely talented troupe, clearly game for anything, are expert improvisers and marvelously adept at physical comedy, so you might never know, but the raised platform that serves as Charles’s study is particularly precarious, apparently destined to cause some major damage. (Members of the cast have indeed suffered injuries over the years performing The Play That Goes Wrong as well as its sequel, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and The Comedy about a Bank Robbery, also by Mischief.) And as far as injuries go, you might laugh so hard you’ll hurt yourself, which is not necessarily such a bad thing.
254 West 54th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 1, $59-$149
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage at last makes her Broadway debut with the timely Sweat, as powerful and searing at Studio 54 as it was last year at the Public Theater. The two-act play takes place in 2000 and 2008 in Reading, Pennsylvania, where the futility of the American dream is on display. The play opens with a scene in 2008, as former best friends Chris (Khris Davis) and Jason (Will Pullen) have been released from prison after eight years behind bars for an undisclosed crime. Flashback to 2000, when factory workers Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), Chris’s mother, who’s married to the drug-addicted Brucie (John Earl Jelks); Tracey (Johanna Day), Jason’s mother; and Jessie (Alison Wright), a divorced drunkard, are celebrating a birthday in a bar run by former factory worker Stan (James Colby) and his bus boy, Oscar (Carlo Albán). When a front-office job at the factory becomes available, Cynthia shows an interest in getting off the floor, leading to dissension in the ranks, jealousy, envy, and, ultimately, violence.
Sweat has transferred exceedingly well from the Public to Broadway, with only very minor tweaks to the script by Nottage (Intimate Apparel, Meet Vera Stark), while the direction by Kate Whoriskey (How I Learned to Drive, The Piano Teacher), who also helmed Nottage’s Ruined, is even sharper. The only cast change is Wright (The Americans), who adds more depth to the role of Jessie; Lance Coadie Williams also returns as a parole officer assigned to Chris and Jason, along with John Lee Beatty’s expertly designed rotating set. (All of the actors give strong performances, but Day stands out as a single mother who is willing to see only so far in front of her.) The play gets right to the heart of what has been happening in the United States during and after the recent presidential campaign, as Democrats and Republicans continue to argue over jobs, particularly in the Rust Belt. Nottage did a lot of firsthand research in Reading, the steel and textile town that was ranked as the most impoverished city in America in 2011 and has remained in the top ten ever since, with extremely high unemployment and low education leading to a poverty rate of more than forty percent. She met with many of the struggling people there, encountering feelings of desperation, sadness, and betrayal, and turned their poignant stories into Sweat, a fierce and fiery work with plenty of heart and soul, a brilliant microcosm of a deeply divided nation where hardworking people have to live with choices no one should be forced to make. [Ed. note: Sweat has just earned Nottage her second Pulitzer Prize, announced on April 10; she also won in 2009 for Ruined, making her the first female playwright to win multiple Pulitzers.]
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 1, $79-$26
Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant’s Amélie is one of the most imaginative romantic comedies of the twenty-first century, an endlessly charming and surprising tale of a lonely young woman who, after an unfortunate childhood, moves to Paris, where she tries to help make everyone around her happy. Her story is told with visual magic and a carnivalesque soundtrack that would seem to lend itself to becoming a musical. Unfortunately, despite a promising cast and crew, the Broadway adaptation that opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre last week lacks all the exuberant and mysterious joi de vivre that made the film, which received five Oscar nominations, such a critical and popular success. Tony nominee Phillipa Soo (Hamilton, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812) stars as the adult Amélie Poulain, who was played with such wide-eyed wonder in the film by Audrey Tatou. (Savvy Crawford is the young Amélie.) Soo has a lovely singing voice, but the motivations for her character’s quirky, beguiling behavior are lost as she interacts with such oddballs as a blind beggar (David Andino), her cold, rigid father (Manoel Felciano), unpublished writer Hipolito (Randy Blair), café owner Suzanne (Harriet D. Foy), airline hostess Philomene (Alison Cimmet, who also plays Amélie’s mother), plumber Joseph (Paul Whitty), waitress Gina (Maria-Christina Oliveras), local grocer Collignon (Tony Sheldon) and his somewhat simple employee, Lucien (Heath Calvert), Fluffy the giant goldfish (Whitty), and a garden gnome (Andino). There’s also a rock star based on Elton John (Blair), but we’re trying to forget we ever saw that.
Three of the most touching parts of the film get lost in the overstaging by Tony-winning director Pam MacKinnon (Clybourne Park, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and the lackluster book by three-time Tony nominee Craig Lucas (An American in Paris, Prelude to a Kiss): when Amélie finds a small metal box in her apartment and tries to track down its rightful owner (Felciano); develops a friendship with the Glass Man, Dufayel (Sheldon), a brittle painter re-creating Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”; and is enchanted by Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat), a young man who collects discarded prints from a photo booth. The songs, meanwhile, by Daniel Messé (music and lyrics) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics), along with Sam Pinkleton’s uninspired choreography and David Zinn’s confusing set, are trite and unmemorable, making the story much more kid friendly (although Lucas does leave in Amélie’s orgasm joke). What the production seems to miss is that Amélie is not merely an adorable gamine doing cute things but a complex character living in a complicated, broken world that she is trying to fix; unfortunately, she can’t fix the musical itself.