Robin Williams in a beard, Daniel Radcliffe as a business tycoon, the creators of “South Park” at the helm of a hit musical and scores of men in drag have all raised eyebrows in Broadway’s spring season. But what to see and what to skip? That’s the question.
As always, separating hits from flops is more art than science. Some shows (Jerusalem) are hanging by a thread thanks to a few award nominations for their actors. Yet, theaters are chockfull of interesting gems. So here’s TheImproper’s guide to Broadway as summer approaches.
NOT TO BE MISSED:
Ghetto Klown : (Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street) Closing July 10th
John Lequizamo may be the only actor on stage, who can pull off the title role of a hysterical account of his own life. But he displays and uncanny ability to impersonate the characters who filled his own upbringing.
He fills the room with personalities and oddballs worthy of a three-ring circus.
Ghetto Klown takes audiences from Leguizamo’s adolescent memories in Queens (which he dubs the “scrotum, right next to the penis of Manhattan”) to the early days of his acting career during the ’80s and the forward-thinking theatre scene.
For there he goes on the sets of films where he starred opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
With minimal help from music and intelligently funny montages on a large projection screen, he uses his unbelievably enormous comedic talent and character acting skill to tell a hysterical, yet touching tale of his journey to become the Klown.
Whether discussing his first wife (“She was an earth sign; I was a water sign, together we made mud.”) or dressing in drag for his part in the movie “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,” with that “Crazy Swayze,” he lands every joke and never loses his grip on his audience’s attention.
Ghetto Klown is one of the best experiences currently running next to Queens.
The Book of Mormon : (Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street) Open-ended
Despite popular belief, The Book of Mormon is not a rant on Mormonism. Instead, it is a rant on religion in general. It uses clever songs to poke fun at the pervasiveness of faith and values in American society.
Nothing (not Starbucks, “Star Wars” or Wal-Mart) and nobody (not Jesus, Johnny Cochran or Hitler) is safe, and that is what makes this well-written musical so much fun.
The story centers on two young Mormon missionaries (Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells) who are sent off to spread the word in Uganda.
The sets are big, colorful, mocking and vile in all the right places, and the intelligently loud costumes rival only those of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (see below).
“South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez were at the helm of this awesome antithesis to everything politically correct on Broadway.
Their touch is evident at every step. Doe-eyed Rannells is pristine and naïve to perfection, as is his vocal talent. Josh Gad (the Jonah Hill of musical comedy) is also a refreshing addition to the New York stage.
Rory O’Malley and Nikki M. James support the leading actors to a tee, and their talent with comedic timing is worth the full price of a ticket.
Amidst the excellent dance sequences and gut-busting songs are insanity, dirty words and shock value (all of which is hugely entertaining). The Book of Mormon still manages to parlay a warm message to send off audiences with at its end.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying : (Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street) Open-ended
How to Succeed centers on a window-cleaner, J. Pierrepont Finch (Daniel Radcliffe), who uses the advice dispensed in a book to gain a quick rise from the mail room to VP of Advertising at the World-Wide Wicket Company.
Finch’s unorthodox and morally questionable business practices create problems for his career and his love life.
Although this production is being hawked as Radcliffe’s show, the true star of this phenomenal revival is director and choreographer Rob Ashford.
His stage is reminiscent of the pastels and concentric shapes found in Promises, Promises, while the dances show tremendous talent on behalf of both he and his cast.
Nothing goes unused in each sequence: The mail room’s boxes and envelopes are an intricate addition to the action, while drawers of file cabinets in another sequence are woven into the actor’s tap dance.
Although Radcliffe doesn’t demonstrate tremendous talent as a singer, his dance chops are right up there with the best of Broadway’s talent.
Audiences will hardly recognize their beloved Harry Potter as he loses his British accent and flies across the stage with his quick feet–and no broomstick.
He beams in scenes with John Larroquette, who in his Broadway debut is a fun foil, both in character and in height to Radcliffe’s shorter physique.
Larroquette is also no singer, nor is he especially fantastic as a dancer, but his stage presence and dopey quips are joyful. This production of How to Succeed embodies every magical aspect of what people have come to love about Broadway.
Good People : (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street) Closing May 29th
From beginning to end, Good People is impeccably structured. Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire wrote an astonishingly moving, thoughtful story.
Margie Walsh (Frances McDormand) is just let go from her minimum-wage job in Southie, Boston. The single mom of a mentally disabled child, Margie looks to an old fling (Tate Donovan) who made it out of the neighborhood to help her get on her feet again.
McDormand has a gift for evoking laughs even in the most difficult moments in the story. Her Margie is honest and blunt, and the lack of pretension is admirable in the role.
Lindsay-Abaire’s knack for intriguing character development is never more on display than with Mike, Margie’s old fling.
Already extended twice throughout its limited engagement, Good People touches on social and economic class differences, and the importance of perspective in relationships.
The brilliance of the ending sequence is symbolic and heartfelt, and will leave one re-evaluating their own mores.
NOT FOR EVERYONE:
Priscilla Queen of the Desert : (Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway) Open-ended
Priscilla has all the makings of a fantastic theatrical experience, except for an original script.
Based on the 1994 film of the same name, this Priscilla has no originality in its story.
It seems all creative juices were dried up on the dynamic costumes of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, whose work steals the show five times over.
With gay jokes and gay culture galore, Priscilla has the feel of a long night out at a gay karaoke bar.
Tick (Will Swenson), Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and Adam (Nick Adams) are a Sydney-based performing trio of drag queens, whose story revolves around their journey to the middle of the Australian outback.
Swenson, who wowed last year with his brilliant performance in Hair, falters in this sideshow.
Perhaps due to the Aussie accent he tries on for size, his vocals are very much off center. Adams and Sheldon spout off cheesy sex jokes to no end, and nothing about their vocals is redeeming either.
Had the actors been given original songs, perhaps they would have had a chance. Instead, they destroy Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Get it? That’s the level of humor here.
Songs by Madonna, Donna Summer and other disco era musicians gets equally skewered. The sets are out of this world, and the energy is upbeat from start to finish, but there is no substance to this pulpy mess.
Arcadia : (Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street) Closing June 19
Tom Stoppard’s intricate words and involved plots make Arcadia a doozy of a piece.
First set in April 1809 at an English country estate, Thomasina (Bel Powley), a gifted pupil, proposes a startling theory well beyond her comprehension. She is surrounded by adults, including her tutor Septimus (Tom Riley) in the grips of desire, lust, and professional rivalries.
Two hundred years later, academic adversaries Hannah (Lia Williams) and Bernard (Billy Crudup) are piecing together clues about what actually transpired in 1809.
Overlapping tales (though fascinatingly staged and poignantly developed) end up clashing in a bit of head-scratching confusion towards the end.
Stoppard’s script is incredibly wordy as it delves into mathematical theorems, questions about thermodynamics, and a number of references to English authors, most of which will go unrecognized to New York audiences.
Although the entire cast has excellent chemistry, Arcadia’s best moments always come when Raul Esparza and Billy Crudup take the stage.
Though audiences might not always be clear on what they are discussing, they imbibe humor and intensity with gusto.
If director David Leveaux had taken some liberties with Stoppard’s script and cut portions of the tedious dialogue, it may have added clarity in places where it was largely needed.
NOT WORTH IT:
Bengal Tiger at the Baghad Zoo : (Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street) Open-ended
Robin Williams is clearly a draw for this slow, confusing tale with little appeal or poignancy.
Although the use of suspended belief is well-executed, as we are expected to follow the tale being narrated by a tiger (Williams, with no costume alluding to his “animal” role), Rajiv Joseph’s script gets increasingly dense and convoluted as the story unfolds. < em>Bengal follows the intertwined lives of two American Marines and one Iraqi gardener as they struggle to find friendship and redemption in war-torn Iraq.
The play asks audiences to evaluate humanity and determine what drives us to kill one another, but the messages are hard to pull from the confusion of long diatribes and sparse action.
Williams’ tiger is funny and intelligent with his sarcastic humor (“When an atheist finds himself wandering around after death, he’s got some serious re-evaluating to do”), but the role doesn’t save audiences from the boredom and darkness that encompass what could have been an intelligent piece.