Ever since it premiered at The Old Vic in London in 2016, the rumour mill has been rife with talk about if and when Tim Minchin’s musical...
An Englishman in New York
As I walked the festively lit streets of New York this month, I saw the billboards of the Neil Simon Theatre (current home of Sting's debut musical 'The Last Ship') plastered with the message "Sting joins the cast through to Jan 24, 2015!" I was reminded of the lyrics to his 1988 hit "Englishman in New York" and couldn't help but smile. Indeed, I had in my possession a ticket to see the 11-time Grammy Award-winning artist later on in my trip.
This Englishman's Broadway mission was to see a total of 18 shows in 15 days - and what a delightful mission to undertake! Things ran very smoothly indeed until the Friday night, when I turned up to the Richard Rodgers Theatre (perhaps, alongside the New Amsterdam Theatre, the most impressive of all the theatres I visited) to see Tony winner Idina Menzel in 'If/Then.' I arrived at 7:50pm only to be told that Ms Menzel would not be performing that night and I could be offered a free ticket to a future performance and still see the show with her understudy if I wished. I have seen Idina in concert once at Manchester's Palace Theatre and desperately wanted to see her in an actual musical, so I decided to exchange my ticket for the final evening of my stay in New York... and hope for the best. Unfortunately, by this time, it was too late for me to quickly squeeze myself into a different show that night, so I ended up 'only' seeing 17 shows in 15 days. Well, I wouldn't have wanted to overdo it... ;-)
I thought I would just share with you some very brief thoughts about each show. Here's a quick run-through of my Broadway Christmas in New York:
1) PIPPIN: This was the only show I saw with a leading role played by an understudy at that particular performance. The Voice winner Josh Kaufman was off. I didn't mind, however, as I have never seen the US version of The Voice and had heard his acting abilities weren't quite up to scratch. Sam Lips did a tremendous job filling in as Pippin. The show has, of course, great musical numbers by Stephen Schwartz and a great ensemble cast of acrobats, whose stunts keep proceedings exciting. My hat also goes off to Priscilla Lopez - at the end of the day, you just can't beat a Granny on a Flying Trapeze! *****
2) IT'S ONLY A PLAY: What a marvel it is to see Tony winner Nathan Lane live on stage! I wasn't sure about the character choices made for Matthew Broderick's role, but seeing this 'Broadway bromance' in action is both hilarious and touching at the same time. Packed with in-jokes about the Broadway community and other current shows on the Great White Way, this comedy is perhaps best enjoyed by theatre fanatics who know the names and reputations of all of Broadway's top critics and have seen most, if not all, shows Broadway presently has to offer. ****
3) MOTOWN - THE MUSICAL: There are posters all over New York for Motown - The Musical, which indicate a move to London in Fall 2015... and personally, I can't wait to see it again in the Big Smoke! I may be a little biased, being a huge fan of the music from the Motown era, but for me, this musical has everything. A special mention goes to Krystal Joy Brown whose portrayal of Diana Ross is right on the money! *****
4) THE REAL THING: The Roundabout Theatre Company's revival production of Tom Stoppard's play felt at times a little dated and a little stagnant. I'm not sure if this was due to the unimpressive set or the lack of chemistrey between some of the actors. However, strong performances from Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal (both making their Broadway debuts) more than made up for this. ***
5) KINKY BOOTS: Long rumoured to be making its way at some point to London, I'm surprised this show didn't begin its life in the West End. Set in a shoe factory in Northampton, some of the accents at times were a little questionable, but I am sure this is something the average American theatregoer would neither notice nor care less about. The musical is a feast for the senses and has much heartfelt sentiment to its plot. Billy Porter (as Lola) and his entourage of Drag Queens can't help but steal the show with their flamboyant numbers. *****
6) HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH: Following Neil Patrick Harris' Tony Award-winning performance as the East German Transgender rocker Hedwig is no walk in the park, but I feel Michael C. Hall did an admirable job leading the current production. Some of his jokes and innuendos fell a little flat, but his highly energetic performances left you in no doubt that he is a star who is giving you every ounce he has. The musical itself is a strange, unique experience, but I have always believed that Broadway should be a place that offers very differing experiences, and I found myself mesmerizingly moved, especially during 'The Origin of Love.' ****
7) A DELICATE BALANCE: What a treat to see Glenn Close on the Broadway stage! Accompanied by such great actors as John Lithgow, Lindsay Duncan and Claire Higgins, I truly felt I was witnessing an acting masterclass. My first thought on leaving the theatre was how implausible the high-stakes situation the characters found themselves in seemed and yet, how utterly plausible the naturalistic and carefully acted performances made it. That is the mark of magnificent actors, and although the piece felt a little too long, they certainly made it worth your while. ****
8) ON THE TOWN: Thank goodness that you can see a good 'old-fashioned' musical on the Great White Way! New York, New York, it's a helluva town! Indeed. It's a shame we can't have classic musicals like this more often. Fantastic choreography, over-the-top comedy characters, and a simple, yet appealing story that suits one and all. It was also my first experience of the American national anthem being sung in a theatre, audience members (including myself) instantly rose to their feet and with hand over heart, they belted out that Star Spangled Banner, as if they were auditioning for a Broadway musical themselves. Fantastic! *****
9) THE RIVER: I do like the fact that Circle in the Square is classed as a Broadway Theatre. This allows for high quality productions in a small intimate space. In this instance, the main draw is being so close to Tony Award-winning A-Lister Hugh Jackman. The play could easily be performed off-Broadway or even off-off-Broadway, but the addition of Jackman, leads to a furore only fit for the Great White Way. The play itself is unusual and yet predictable and perhaps poses as many questions as it answers. But it certainly establishes Jackman as a great stage actor... and very handy when it comes to gutting a fish! ***
10) THE LAST SHIP: I was surprised how much I really enjoyed Sting's debut musical. Again, when it comes to British accents, the only true Geordie accents came from Rachel Tucker and Sting himself in this show. Maybe dialect coaches are the first thing to go when it comes to cutting the budget on Broadway? Sting has great stage presence, both as a singer and as an actor, and I felt fortunate to catch his limited engagement in the musical. Yes, the book could do with some re-working, but you can't help but get emotionally involved with the characters and the folk songs written by Sting are moving and at times mystical. I would definitely tip on The Last Ship doing better in London. *****
11) THE ELEPHANT MAN: Bradley Cooper's performance as John Merrick was hands down my acting highlight of the trip. If he is not nominated for a Tony Award at the next ceremony, you'll be able to knock me down with a feather! What a strain he is putting on his body for eight shows a week. Yet, it is an acting challenge he obviously relishes. Great performances too from Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson. The set is minimalist and effective, the costumes are grand and the book is genuinely heartbreaking. If you can only see one play on Broadway right now, get yourself to The Elephant Man! *****
12) CABARET: And here's my musical highlight of my trip! The atmosphere created in Studio 54 is so utterly unique, it almost has an unfair advantage over the other musicals currently performing on Broadway. Decked out with cabaret tables, chairs and little lamps that light up in time with the musical numbers, along with waiter/waitress service by resident Kit Kat boys and girls, this is such a classy experience. Top that with Alan Cumming doing what he does best in his iconic portrayal of the Emcee and a surprisingly powerful performance by Hollywood star Emma Stone, you have an absolute winner. Kander and Ebb's legendary songs get the production they so rightly deserve. *****
13) CINDERELLA: It was obvious who most of the patrons had come to see that night. Theatre etiquette went straight out of the window as Reality TV star NeNe Leakes graced the stage as the wicked stepmother, Madame. I thought the cries of undying love and comments about how fabulous she was would never end. Leakes, perhaps unknowingly, helps to turn a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein piece into more of a pantomime, but the children in the audience and newcomers to the theatre certainly didn't mind. A special mention should go out to William Ivey Long for the fantastic costumes, which magically transform before your very eyes. ***
14) CONSTELLATIONS: Again, this piece felt more like an off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway production, but with the star power of Jake Gyllenhaal, has earned a place on the Great White Way. At 70 minutes and no interval, you are paying around $2 per minute for a good seat and you do need to be right towards the front to appreciate it fully. Thankfully, I was sat on the front row. It seemed like two actors auditioning for drama school and constantly being redirected to deliver lines differently by the teacher holding the audition. I believe the idea behind Constellations could not hold the attention of an audience for longer than 70 minutes, and as it is, it is an interesting and short evening out. ***
15) ALADDIN: Disney's latest mega-hit, although perhaps not as creatively imaginative as I would have liked, certainly packs in more comedy and laughter than any of the company's predecessors. James Monroe Iglehart is captivating and show-stealing as Genie and the vibrant colours of the set and costumes make the show a feast for the eyes. There are enough jokes shoe-horned in for the benefit of the accompanying parents in the audience and children and adults alike will gaze in wonder at the magic carpet scene. In my eyes, there is always room on Broadway for some Disney magic! ****
16) SIDE SHOW: This was a big surprise for me, and I'm sad that it is closing so soon. I felt completely entranced for the duration of this cult musical based on the lives of conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton. Astounding acting and vocal performances by the two leading ladies Erin Davie and Emily Padgett. I found myself moved to tears by the beautiful score, especially 'I Will Never Leave You,' 'You Should Be Loved,' and 'Who Will Love Me As I Am?' What a shame that the American audiences haven't embraced the show more. *****
17) IF/THEN: Idina Menzel certainly earns her stripes in this modern day New York musical for a modern day New York audience, set in New York and packed with New York references. The plot was a little confusing at times, due to its parallell narratives. At times, I wasn't sure which version of Menzel's character Elisabeth (either Liz or Beth) I was witnessing. However, I applaud the idea behind it and feel it was a good representation of what a young musical theatre enthusiast is looking for. It was certainly breath-taking to see Idina Menzel on the stage, belting out 'Always Starting Over.' ****
And that concludes a wonderfully festive couple of weeks spent on Broadway. Well done, if you got to the end of this long, but hopefully inciteful list!
Sub-Editor at Londontheatre.co.uk & NewYorktheatreguide.com
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