The Met does Broadway

By Sharman Yarnell on August 7, 2008

Broadway bound this summer?

Consider: A late night walk along Broadway with the neon lights glowing along the streets from 42 Street to Times Square screaming at you, beckoning for you to turn onto them and take in one of the greatest celebrations of the human spirit – the Broadway play.

I get caught up in the magic of Broadway every time I immerse myself in my yearly marathon. Four plays in three days this time -  it's a necessary tonic for this theatre addict.

This year, Broadway is serving up another cornucopia of musicals. I headed first for The St James Theatre to a revival of the first musical I ever saw. I sat, fourth row center, waiting for the overture of some of the best pieces of work ever created by Stephen Sondheim – 'Everything's Coming Up Roses', 'I Had a Dream' and  'Let Me Entertain You'. It's the music that introduced me to the land of  Nirvana when I was a kid watching Angela Lansbury in the London production of  Gypsy!

A few minutes before the curtain, a voice came over the loudspeakers with the cursory message in all cinemas and theatres now, asking the audience to turn off all cell phones and to please open any candy wrapped in cellophane. Then - horror of horrors - “Miss Lupone has hurt her foot”! A great intake of breath could be heard throughout the theatre. And then: “Miss Lupone will be performing in Isotoners”. Breath released. Isotoners never had it so good!

Patti Lupone may have hurt her foot but that didn't hold her back from putting in a powerful, electric performance.  In what is arguably one of the most demanding female roles in musical theatre, she marches down the centre aisle, sweeps onto the stage and takes control of the audition taking place, crying out those famous lines, 'Sing out Louise”. From there on in she holds the audience in a stranglehold as Mama Rose in Gypsy.

Lupone's Tony Award for her performance of the mother living her dreams through her children, no matter what the cost, is not to be missed. You expect no less from the great Patti Lupone. She brought something to the performance that I had not seen before.  Along with the frenetic, maniacal impulse to get what she wants from life, this Mama Rose was played with a raw sensuality, with true gusto. She played the relationship between herself and Herbie (Boyd Gaynes, who also won the Tony for Best Performance for a Featured Actor in a musical) as if she were plucking the taught strings on a violin. She teases the audience. Which makes sense when you think of the artistry and sophistcation that her daughter brought to stripping. (She had to learn it somewhere.)

“In The Heights” moved on to Broadway, into The Richard Rogers Theatre, after an extended run off-Broadway last year and walked off with this year's Tony for Best Musical. Well deserved. It's based on life in Washington Heights, conceived and written by Lin-Manuel Miranda during his sophomore year at Wesleyan University. But the show has a minor limitation. If you aren't accustomed to the syntax and street language of the Latino, then a lot of what is said goes over the head. This is not the lyrical music of  the “West Side Story” of Leonard Bernstein. This is Now. It's still a production for the traditional and non-traditional theatregoer.  Much of the production is artfully performed in rap, hip-hop and salsa and the dance sequences are high voltage.  Choreographers Andy Blankenbuehler and Andy Kail have worked an energetic, hot masterpiece turning the streets around the bridge into a pulsating mass of colour. The dancers are driven to deliver. The focus demanded of the audience leaves you absolutely exhausted. The set is brilliantly designed by Anna Louizo and transports you to the vibrant area of life around the Washington Bridge. There is no major plot line here, but rather collages of plots that don't necessarily connect, so at times the stories get a bit murky. Whilst this is a tight-knit ensemble cast, there are three performances that are outstanding. Creator and lead performer Lin-Manuel Miranda as  'Usnavi'. His sidekick, 'Sonny', played by Robin de Jesus, who also provides some great comedy.  And, last but not least, Olga Merediz as 'Abuela' who is the spine of the community and a focal point of the show.  And what a powerhouse of a voice she has!

My one disappointment was “A Catered Affair”, a musical based on the movie of the same name. Bette Davis played the lead in the movie.  Lesley Kritzer plays a lethargic, boring Janey in the Broadway production, adapted for the stage by Harvey Fierstein who also has a role in the play along with Faith Prince and Tom Wopat (The Dukes of Hazzard). The show is worth seeing for Wopat's performance alone.  He is absolutely riveting – and was nominated for a Tony. It tells the story of a working class Bronx family in 1953 that's faced with a simple decision, whether to spend their life's savings on a family business or their daughter's wedding.The performance I saw was flat and uninspiring with no energy, except from Fierstein and Wopat. (Probably a cast reaction to the early closure of the play on July 27.)  “A Catered Affair”was not an affair to remember. 

Don't confuse my enthusiasm for the musicals with my sadness at seeing so few dramas available on Broadway!

The only drama I caught was “August: Osage County”, written by Tracy Letts, this year's Pulitzer Prize winner and Tony Award winner for Best Drama. If any play has totally captured the dysfunctional family for the stage, this is it! Presently starring Estelle Parsons as the drug addicted matriarch of the family, August will drag you down into the depths of despair, have you laughing hysterically and, in some cases, relating to the action, all in one short moment on stage. And the play is made up of many such moments. That's why it gets away with a three hour sitting with two ten minute intermissions. It's a thought provoking ride through a densely woven plot of drug addiction, incest, suicide, racism, aging, and pedophelia – all in one family, would you believe!

It is incredibly well acted by all involved, a true ensemble cast. Of note, Estelle Parsons has beautifully and frighteningly defined a harridan, a nasty, acid-tongued woman whose nurturing qualities of motherhood have shriveled up and turned into dried prunes. Amy Morton puts in an equally strong performance as the controlling eldest daughter who is coming to the realization that she is the embodiment of her parents. And that is a horrifying realization! The set designed by  Todd Rosenthall is stunning, made up of a three story house with an open front allowing the audience to see what's happening in every room at any time during the play.

August leaves you exhausted emotionally but stimulated spiritually. We have seen the truly American family as it often presents itself, one way or another. Yet we leave this theatre so much richer for it.

Thank you Broadway.


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