PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 10-16: Scandalous, The Performers, Edwin Drood and Giant Open
By Robert Simonson
With Thanksgiving, and all its attendant preparations, coming up next week, the New York theatre got a handful of openings out of the way this week. And, yes, some of them were turkeys. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)
On Nov. 13, Broadway said hello to its fist-ever revival of Rupert Holmes' Dickens-inspired whodunnit musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The show, in which the audience chooses the culprit of Dickens' last unfinished novel, opened at Studio 54 and starred Stephanie J. Block, Chita Rivera and Will Chase.
The show was a critical and popular smash the first time, and critics were charmed again this time around. If the show wasn't exactly A-level material, they generally agreed, it was A-level entertainment. The New York Times, while allowing that the show was "a musical that ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its hard-working parts," approved of the production. "In an era when Broadway revivals of beloved musicals can seem dispiritingly skimpy, this handsome production offers a generous feast for the eyes, trimmed in holiday cheer for an added spritz of currency."
The man from the AP had a ball, too. "Perhaps the best part is watching the first-rate cast have so much fun...This is a play where overacting can be done to perfection…the fun is infectious, even if it seems that the folks on stage might be having more of it than the paying guests." Others had minor qualms. "Director Scott Ellis could easily have pushed the pace into a gallop rather than a trot," wrote the NY Post, "and cranked up the zany-meter a notch or two. Still, for a show doing triple duty as musical, choose-your-own-ending mystery and time-travel device, Drood is jolly good fun."
"Drood, ultimately, is not a complete show so much as an expandable playspace," concluded New York magazine, "and with performers of this caliber, an evening of yeasty, nudge-nudge-wink-wink British good humor is more or less guaranteed. The show-within-the-show may drone a bit, but the show-around-the-show sparkles."
Kathie Lee Gifford's career as a Broadway lyricist and librettist was ushered in on Nov. 15 when her collaboration with David Friedman and David Pomeranz, titled Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, bowed at the Neil Simon Theatre.
The production suffered a hiccup the day before, on Nov. 14, when star Carolee Carmello was put on vocal rest for two performances on Wednesday. Her voice was strained and two performances were canceled.
Of course, by then, the critics has all already seen her performance as the the Jazz Age evangelist who fell from grace when she disappeared for several days under strange circumstances. The Times, while admiring Carmello, had less kind things to say about her vehicle. "Scandalous…condenses and rearranges McPherson's story to fit smoothly into the familiar grooves of celebrity biography. In the process the show reduces McPherson's remarkable life to a cliché-bestrewn fable about the wages of fame." The show was not "so much scandalously bad as it is generic and dull."
Newsday had much the same assessment, saying Carmello was "one of our most deeply wonderful, inexplicably underutilized singing actors," but that the show was merely, "well-produced and professional. It's also not interesting, alas, at least not interesting enough to sustain 2-1/2 hours of fast-forward storytelling and inspirational songs that almost always end in throbbing climax." USA Today paid the show an odd compliment, saying it had "the courage of its sincerity. Gifford and co-composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman have crafted a two-hour-plus journey that neither wallows in its self-importance nor looks down its nose at the quaint folks it chronicles."
Variety's verdict declared, simply, "The composer, lyricist, librettist, director, choreographer and producers are all Broadway first-timers; so much for beginner's luck."
The Performers opened on Broadway Nov. 14, and will close on Nov. 18, the producers announced on Nov. 15, following flaccid reviews.
The play, by Broadway neophyte David West Read, was billed as a romantic comedy about two high school friends who reconnect against the backdrop of the adult film world. The oddball cast included a big name from the 1970s, Henry Winkler, a big name from the 1990s, Alicia Silverstone, and a few Broadway regulars (Cheyenne Jackson in skimpy underwear).
Critics were not amused. "The Performers offers proof positive that it's possible to talk real dirty and still be the squarest show in town," wrote the New York Times. It "feels like a throwback to the more discreetly risqué entertainments of 40 and 50 years ago." The Daily News pointed out that "it takes real smarts to make dumb people funny. A string of easy puns and double entendres and faux XX-film titles…aren't enough to elevate this beyond a raunchy extended skit." Echoed the NY Post: "David West Read seems to think that setting his Broadway debut, The Performers, in the world of porn is hilarious in and of itself. So the show never bothers with anything besides raunchy wisecracks that get less and less funny as the evening wears on."
Kinder words were reserved for the performers.
The Signature Theatre Company got its season dedicated to the work of David Henry Hwang underway with a revival of his 1996 play Golden Child. Leigh Silverman directed a cast featuring Jennifer Lim and Julyana Soelistyo.
Reviews of the drama — about a Chinese businessman who returns home after working abroad and sets off a dangerous power struggle in his polygamous Chinese household — were mixed. Entertainment Weekly found the show "uneven," while the Daily News said, "While not particularly deep and a bit too jokey for its own good, Hwang's tale, inspired by his family, is well-told. Director Leigh Silverman's polished cast and production showcase it at its best advantage." The Times found the production "more intimate and more overtly comic" than the original, but some of the performances "blunt or stilted."
Downtown, at the Public Theater, Edna Ferber's 1952 novel Giant, about the coming of age of Texas, got the musical treatment at the hands of Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson. Brian d'Arcy and Kate Baldwin starred as the Lone Star State couple at the story's center.
Everyone agreed the show was "ambitious." But those ambitions were only partly met. "At more than three hours, the production could benefit from pruning scenes and songs," stated the Daily News. "LaChiusa's score is lush and beautiful. It spills over with emotion and yearning. But some numbers go on long after they've made their point." "This is a high-reaching musical," wrote the Times, "and practically every number in it is one of determined aspiration….But there's another, countervailing force at work here: a mighty tug of gravity that keeps pulling the show down to earth and even threatens to bury it. That force is the weighty obligation of condensing a plot-packed, multigenerational doorstop of a novel…into a work that floats through 3 hours 15 minutes of stage time."
Entertainment Weekly, however, loved it, calling it "one of the finest new American musicals in recent memory." And the Washington Post said "Somehow Ferber's sprawling material has been wrangled into a generally cohesive, often-eloquent musical that retains her concern with social issues while examining 25 turbulent years."
Elsewhere Off-Broadway, the Classic Stage Company opened its new production of Anton Chehov's Ivanov, a play that the Russian playwright revised throughout his lifetime. Ethan Hawke headed an estimable cast.
Reviews were decidedly more mixed than they were for director Austin Pendleton's last Chekhov go-round at CSC — the much praised Three Sisters. The Times found the acting styles wildly variable, but found that the production occasionally gelled, with "the performers shine here with enjoyably competitive prickliness." Entertainment Weekly said, "Pendleton's production has some hiccups in pacing, particularly in the first act, but the chief shortcoming in this solid but uneven production is Hawke himself." In the opinion of the Daily News, "the Classic Stage Company’s revival starring a shrill and manic Ethan Hawke pushes you away…with its all-over-the-map performances."
The Broadway production of Matilda The Musical will have enough Matildas that they can waltz with each other — and have plenty of partners.
Young actresses Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro will share the title role in the Roald Dahl-inspired story. Each actress will make her Broadway debut in the production that will begin previews March 4, 2013, and officially open April 11, 2013, at the Shubert Theatre. The original London production also utilizes four actresses who alternate in the title role. They earned a shared Olivier Award for their work.
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