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NYC 2024 Round-Up Reviews

This year’s New York trip proved to be a wonderful jaunt to my Theatre Mecca. Five Broadway shows, three off-Broadway shows, a few first-time audience experience--in terms of theaters--I hadn’t seen a show at, and a plethora of massively enjoyable experiences at the theater. Below are the reviews of the shows I had the (mostly) pleasure of seeing.



Here We Are (#876)


What has now been referred to as Sondheim’s Last, this bonkers and wildly entertaining musical stays true to Sondheim’s often moody scores and David Ives’s well-paced books. Having done the homework ahead of time (I watched “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “The Exterminating Angel,” as well as read Ives’s six-one-acts play, All in the Timing) afforded me the luxury of knowing exactly what the plot would be and embrace the surrealist, and nearly absurdist, reality set on stage–I mean who among us wouldn’t do a double-take at the ingenue waltzing with a black bear? Joe Mantello’s direction grounded the book scenes beautifully and gave simplicity where the audience would otherwise work overtime to make sense of the character's circumstances: Act One is a dinner party where the guests never get to eat, and Act Two is the same party eating but never being able to leave the room they’re in until the end. Complementing the staging was Sam Pinkleton’s non-uniform formation work and individualistic movement for each character. David Zinn’s scenic design was a wide open space of blank canvas and flies that served as signs, seating, and a bar top. However, the end of Act One reveal of the trapping dining room garnered applause and a nice respite from the otherwise white walls, and well-deserved applause at that. 


The cast was impeccable in executing the roles, with absolute commitment to their character's whims and eccentricities. Rachel Bay Jones was a comedic standout as Marianne Brink, an earnest, appropriately ditsy wife to Bobby Cannavale’s pompous Leo Brink. David Hyde Pierce was a one-liner guru as the Bishop, and he and Jones shared a quiet scene discussing humanity that is sure to be fodder for collegiate acting classes for years to come; their delivery was evidence of what two pros can do when superb writing and seasoned directorial pacing meet. Whether you’re a Sondheim stan, a fan of off-the-wall musical theatre, or just happy to support new works, Here We Are is sure to satisfy at least one itch that only musical theatre of this type can scratch should it be done again (and I'm sure it will).



Merrily We Roll Along (#877)


This was my first time encountering any staging of this notorious flop by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth. However, this was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in a theater, ever. Maria Friendman’s astute direction has the cast and design team work the long game for the audience so that we don’t have to. Through specific acting choices, led by an infallible Jonathan Groff as Franklin and supported by Daniel Radcliffe’s hilariously mensch-y Charley, and understudy Jamila Sabares-Klemm’s Mary Flynn (the role is principally played by Lindsay Mendez), the audience is invited to lean forward and be swept up in this trio’s trials and tribulations of artists who are trying their best to succeed in the ways which satisfy them most, even when at the expense of commitment to the others in their life. 


Tim Jackson’s choreography and Soutra Gilmour’s double-duty scenic and costume designs help clip the reverse chronology of the play in support of Sondheim’s lyrics. The supporting standout performances by Katie Rose Clarke as Beth, Krystal Joy Brown as Gussie, and especially Reg Rogers as Joe Josephson deliver stellar nuance to their arcs, which are riveting to see unfold. Clarke excels in her balance of matronly commitment and comedic chops and is triumphant in a searing “Not a Day Goes By.” Brown is fantastic in her Act Two, “Gussie’s Opening Number,” and lets the audience be witness to the earnestness Gussie transcends into diva-dom as the second act fleshes out. Rogers goes from down-on-his-luck devastation to swagger-filled peacock with a journey that unravels with as much effectiveness as it is entertaining. However, all roads lead to Groff's sublime, charming performance that doesn’t miss a beat in acting, singing, or chemistry-filled scene work. Groff’s cadence, specificity, and volume control in his lambasts to anyone in Franklin’s way, and embellishing praise when he needs a favor or forgiveness, support his journey when we see him younger and less successful. His final moment, when Charlie, Franklin, and Mary are on the rooftop to look at Sputnik, where Charlie and Mary have binoculars but Franklin just uses the naked eye, brought a well of tears that culminated the entire musical’s messages and moments together in a way that was an elevated finale to this musical gem. 



Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch (#878)


Leslie Odom, Jr. can simply do no wrong when given a script with a depth-filled character to play. The Tony-winning actor dominated as the titular hero and reverend Pulie. Having mastered a cadence balance between his sermonized rants and a grounded final sermon was a performance that gave myriad energy to this mostly superb cast.


Kara Young delivered a riveting comedic performance, highlighted in her opening conversation opposite Jay O. Sanders’ boisterously pompous Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee when she pretends to be a college-educated teacher. Young’s physicality matched her gruff vocal prowess, making her performance a domineering task flawless in execution.

Supporting highlights came from O’Sanders’ ability to easily deliver the racism fueling O’l Cap’n’s rants and insults; Billy Eugene Jones’s Gitlow is a fantastic high-comedy commitment which was maintained all show long with pizazz and quips and double-meanings delivered with earnestness; and Noah Robbins gave a mostly animated performance as Charlie Cotchipee, and while the vocal heights the timbre went into was, at times, comical, there were some lovely emotionally-driven moments rooted in serving Ossie Davis’s script.


Kenny Leon’s direction made the no-intermission play an entertaining contemplation, where audiences were immediately invited to lean forward and go on the journey with the characters. The ending of the play gave a breaking of the fourth wall that was fully satisfying under Odom Jr.’s lead and was a well-earned finale that made the impact intended. Adam Honore’s lighting design was a particular technical standout, as it gleamed, gave shadows to, and illuminated effortlessly on Derek McLane’s simple and well-dressed sets. Purlie Victorious is a devastatingly revelatory play that gave more laughs than you’d think but punched the gut with the various injustices for those who worked in and around cotton fields dealt with in a way that mirrored the relevancy to today’s injustices. 



Gutenberg: the Musical! (#879)


My first Broadway show had me seeing the original cast of The Book of Mormon in 2012, which also served as my first time seeing Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad on stage. I remember being impressed by not just their singing but the reactions they’d give when not the scene's focus. Fast forward to this season, when the two were the only two in a musical, their chemistry and reactions were even more finessed and grounded in an absolutely enjoyable historically fictionalized account of how Gutenberg came about making the printing press.


Under the sturdy hand of Alex Timbers’ knack-for-comedy direction, Gad and Rannells had a balance of comedy, improv, and plot-propelling under a palpable pace that made not needing to read the libretto when made available to decipher what was improvised and what was scripted because it just doesn’t matter! The two were set up for success in this show, and their vocals shined in Scott Brown and Anthony King’s score. The physical business and bits the two actors had were splendidly timed and executed, and the show-within-the-show nature of being the “writers” who write the musical about Gutenberg served as a hilarious resolution to the two-act two-hander. Plus, you gotta love a show where two actors play ALL the roles, with nothing more than a hat with a character name and a dialect change serving as the device. 


Timbers, whose resume includes Peter and the Starcatcher, simply and effectively knows how to do a lot with a minimal set and costume design. What made Gutenberg, the Musical a show worth its salt is that the material was strong enough that as long as you have the right two actors playing off each other. However, I am pleased as punch to have seen the likes of Gad and Rannells bring Gutenberg to life for a night.



Wicked (#880)


Wicked is a musical I’ve seen over a dozen times on tour, and every time I catch it, I observe something new about the lyrics, dialogue, or staging that captivates me even more than the previous endeavor. However, as one who knows this show pretty darn well, it really does hit differently when seeing the Schwartz/Holman adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s book in the Gershwin Theatre. The absolute spectacle of the production brought me to tears multiple times throughout the first act. It took me a good while to settle in and simply appreciate the show once the weeping ceased. Then, I just enjoyed the show-long smile I had on my face while seeing a gifted cast execute this show in a truly entertaining fashion. A show that’s already run for twenty years could be assumed to appear tired or worn down, but Broadway’s Wicked is not the case.


Universally, what captured my attention from the opening “No One Mourns the Wicked” was how fantastic the physical performance was from the principal and ensemble performers. From Glinda’s bubble entrance through flourishing dance turns in “Dancing Through Life” and beyond, the physical timing, reactions, and commitment to executing Wayne Cilneto’s stellar musical staging were tops. Mary Kate Morrissey and McKenzie Kurtz delivered a beautifully connected rivals-turned-friends relationship as Elphaba and Glinda. Morriset’s “The Wizard and I” was both powerful in vocals and vulnerable in the “I Want” delivery it requires. Kurtz led a hilarious “Popular” while balancing the comedy with legit vocal turns in “Thank Goodness” and a tender duet with Morrissey in “For Good.” 

Jordan Litz was a stellar Fiyero, giving vocal prowess to “Dancing Through Life” and serving as a stirring partner opposite Morrissey in “As Long as You’re Mine.” Supporting standouts came from a charming Jake Pederson as Boq, who gave a delightful earnestness opposite Kurtz’s dismissive Glinda, and traveling the vengeful tin-woodsman opposite a dynamite Kimber Elayne Sprawl as Nessarose. Christianne Tisdale was the Madame Morrible the evening I attended and was equal parts domineering and villainous, a complete package one wants Morrible to exude. 


With the technical aspects serving as their own leading character, the work done by Eugene Lee for his set design, the sheer grandeur filling the Gershwin stage is mesmerizing, and Kenneth Posner lit it incredibly well. The whimsy and identifying nature of Susan Hilferty’s costume design plays well for each character. It is a palette of visual stimuli which enhances the characterizations each performer is already giving their track. Wicked truly needs no endorsement from me, but I will continue to shout from the top of the bubble that everyone should see this show at least once and as often as possible. 



All the Devils Are Here (#881)


Before seeing Patrick Page in his solo show, All the Devils Are Here, I had the pleasure of seeing his Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), George/Valentina (Casa Valentina), and Hades (Hadestown), all of which showed the depth of Page’s talent and versatility with his deep timbre and commanding presence. All the Devils… provided no music, no elaborate costumes, and no co-actor(s) to play off; just him, a layered outfit, and some moody lighting with the text of Shakespeare and commentary, which educates, entertains, and is moving. To date, this is my favorite performance I have seen from Patrick Page.

 

This play was brilliantly structured (created and performed by Page) and directed by Simon Goodwin from start to finish. Page delivered the hallmark villains in Shakespeare’s canon and utilized deft narrations and revealing context to drive the impact Shakespeare’s villains have had in both The Bard’s time to modern-day villainy. Stacey Derosier’s lighting design, in particular, was superb and perfectly calibrated to aid Page’s switch in focus from Page the Bard interpreter to the deliverer of soliloquy. Page’s glares, stares, and knowing glances gave face to his manipulating tones as the various villains pled their reasoning to the audience in compelling fashion. Arnulfo Maldonado’s simple scenic design comprised just a few chairs, a desk, and several contextual props to create various worlds seen through Page’s captivating and nuanced performance. The Bard would most certainly be proud to know that Page--one of modern American theatre’s best interpreters of his most iconic speeches--.is doing justice to his work.



Titanique (#882)


Just a hallway down from the matinee of All the Devils… was a 5pm showing of off-Broadway’s favorite spoof, Titanique, replete with a pop score that has bops and ballads galore and (the charcater of) Celine Dion leading the company of the Titanic/cast of the James Cameron-helmed film through a re-enactment of the Titanic events. Led by an infallible Jackie Burns, as Celine, who makes sure nobody is having more fun than her, Titanique is a perfect example of a show that, sans a stellar-voiced cast, simply doesn’t suit my tastes for musical comedy at all.


Lindsay Heather Pearce and Michael Williams deliver a comedically driven romantic couple as Rose and Jack, the Titanic’s heart and soul. Their vocals soar in duets and solos, and their comedic chops are on full display throughout the moments for improv and scene-stealing bits by the supporting cast. Marcus Antonio is a dynamite Iceberg, with charisma and Tina Turner-homage moves and vocals to boot; Brandon Contreras is a delightfully despicable Cal who, in this rendition of the Titanic story, is a closeted fiancee to Rose but still just as rich; and Anne Fraser Thomas is fantastic as Molly Brown. 


I was made glaringly aware of the various demographics this show caters to. However, I wasn’t upset during the 100-minute duration that everyone around me and onstage was having the time of their lives. In fact, it made me appreciate seeing pure talent on stage execute a musical parody at an elevated level, even if nearly every joke demolished the rule of three and made sure that if you thought it was funny the first time that you’d spend the next two minutes in the same bit. That said, it’s a great show for those looking for Burns and company to sing the ever-living snot out Nicholas Connell’s score. Titanique knows exactly what it is, and if you’re in the mood for a party, a story you know, and a cast uniformly on the same page in style, then Titanique is the ticket for you!



Monty Python’s Spamalot (#883)


The finale of my NYC 2024 trip was the revival of Monty Python’s Spamalot, a show I still can’t quite understand why was revived but certainly provided enough laughs for a comedic escape. Primarily based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a nibble of Life of Brian, Monty Python fans are sure to enjoy most of the new cast’s take and interpretations of the hall-of-fame bits of the French Taunter, a flesh-wounded Black Knight, the Knights of Ni, and Patsy galloping away with coconuts. James Monroe Iglehart leads a committed cast of Knights, Laker Girls, and various other characters with a commanding King Arthur. What makes Josh Rhodes’s direction work best is allowing the improv skills of Iglehart, whose Broadway credits include his Tony-winning Genie in Aladdin and guest spots in Freestyle Love Supreme, to shine when the moment calls for it. The night I attended included Nik Walker’s limbs preemptively falling off during the Black Night/Arthur sword fight. Taran Killam–playing the Sir Lancelot/French Taunter/Knight of Ni/Tim track--brought the bit back as the Knight of Ni and Iglehart and Walker “yes, and-ed” their way to a memorable bit. 


Killam was a standout in all comedic tracks (the track is now played by Alex Brightman) with his turn as the long, sloppy spitting French Taunter serving as the highlight; Michael Urie leads a whimsical, dance-demanding (Rhodes doubles as the production’s choreographer) “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” which is dated in its spoofing and intentionally-stereotypical joking lyrics; and Christopher Fitzgerald is a lovely, supporting Patsy, complete with deadpan delivery and a fun turn in leading “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer is a strong complement opposite a dominating comedic performance by Walker when he is Sir Galahad, and their vocals shine well together in an appropriately over-the-top “The Song that Goes Like This.” 


This production serves up comedy like a buffet at a restaurant you frequent–take what you want, leave what you don’t crave, and just know it’s gonna be basically the same the next time you visit it. For those who are fans of musical theatre spoofs, look no further than the St. James Theatre for your fill (while it's still open-it is scheduled to close April 7th); but for those who prefer the truer Monty Python consumption, look no further than your local Netflix and sit back at home with a choice beverage and enjoy the pure form of the jokes delivered by the iconic film casts. 


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