The Perennial Question: Was This a Good Season?
by: Barbara and Scott Siegel
Almost every season has its peaks and valleys; the question is, were the peaks on the scale of Bear Mountain or The Rockies? And were the valleys more on the scale of a small or large New York City pothole? Let’s take a look…
On the up side, nobody should complain about a season that included musicals like Hamilton, An American in Paris, Something Rotten, The Visit, and Fun Home (although this last one really belongs to the previous season). Among the enjoyable if not ground-breaking musicals that deserve praise, were It Shoulda Been You, Pretty Filthy, Honeymoon in Vegas, Fly By Night, and Fortress of Solitude. Actually, all things considered, it was, at least, a damned good year for new musicals.
What was most impressive about the pool of new musicals was their remarkable diversity; there seemed to be something for everyone. An American in Paris has stunning ballet and it’s that rare adaptation from a film musical that can actually stand up and sometimes even surpass its source material. Something Rotten is that flat-out funny, old-fashioned musical comedy that tourists come to Broadway to see, while The Visit and Fun Home are both serious musical dramas with piercing stories to tell, which they do with fluidity, style, and grace. As for Hamilton, it may be greatest musical of this generation (see our previous column).
The musical revival list is shorter. Almost everything that hit the boards in this category was a bit unsatisfying in some ways. While the choreography in On the Town was lovely, the staging and some of the direction left us not just cold, but a little bit put-off. Gigi was an utter disappointment; frankly, don’t produce a show if you don’t trust the material. This wasn’t a re-imagining of Gigi, it was a gutting of it; the changes made to the show were downright infuriating. Side Show was well-cast, beautifully sung, and energetically directed, but some of the heart of the piece was lost by making the freaks so literal. Sometimes a bigger budget can lead to more problems than it solves. Still, Side Show, virtually ignored for end of season honors, was one of the best of a thin crop of worthy revivals.
Of course, The King and I and On the Twentieth Century are the big kahunas in this category. Both are entirely worthy but how worthy is truly dependent upon your past experience with these two shows. If you saw Donna Murphy in the last revival of The King and I you will admire but not be very excited about Kelli O’Hara’s straight-ahead performance. She sings beautifully, of course, but you’ve seen this before. As for Mr. Watanabe’s King, the less said the better. It’s always a plus to be able to be understood by the audience. The best thing going for The King and I is its staging; Bartlett Sher has directed the show with a truly epic touch, starting with the ship that literally sails onto the stage and straight over the top of the orchestra. Thrilling stuff.
As for On the Twentieth Century, it’s rather remarkable that a show that was generally considered to belong to the male star in its first incarnation (John Cullum) is now perceived to belong to its female star (Kristin Chenoweth). The change knocks the show slightly off its pins. Nonetheless, most of the supporting players, particularly Andy Karl, still make hay and the show entertains. One of this season’s most divisive musical revivals – people seem to either love it or hate it – was the Fiasco Theater’s rendition of Into the Woods at the Roundabout’s Laura Pel’s Theater. We fell in the latter camp: simply put, if you’re going to do a musical, the cast should be able to sing the score.
This season’s great plays have been almost exclusively Off-Broadway or Off-Off Broadway. Between Riverside and Crazy, City of Conversation, You’re Getting Older, and Let the Right One In were all extremely well-written, well-acted, and elegantly directed works of art. On Broadway, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time took a good story and laid on so much whiz-bang hoo-ha that it made it seem much greater and more important than the actual writing would suggest (much like the case of War Horse – a great production of an okay story). But even here, though the show is undoubtedly going to win almost every award in sight, the truth is it’s a wee-bit over-directed. One of the best new American plays of the Year was Hand to God, but that could have been seen Off-Off Broadway two years ago at EST, and last year at MCC. We are delighted, though, that a daring play of this nature can still make its way through the circuit and find its way to The Great White Way; it will give hundreds of playwrights hope for years to come – especially if it somehow surprises and wins the Tony Award.
Among Play Revivals, Tamburlane, The Great at TFANA was a great production of a terrible play. Take the superlative John Douglas Thompson out of it and the exciting drum underscoring, and it was like watching an ancient version of ISIS. We’re glad we saw it, but please don’t do it again. At the Signature, we were treated to a sensitive and elegant revival of The Wayside Motor Inn, and BAM presented strong revivals of both Ghosts and The Iceman Cometh. Of course, you can always count on The Mint to do its bit to bring back plays worth seeing and putting them up with spiffy productions. This season, their Fashions for Men was a real standout. Off-Off Broadway, The Metropolitan Playhouse has recently been doing some really great work, as well, in this category. On an even smaller shoestring budget than The Mint, The Metropolitan Playhouse have been unearthing some swell plays and putting on engaging and entertaining old American chestnuts, including Rollo’s Wild Oat and Man of the Hour. On Broadway, the elephant in the room is The Elephant Man; solid work, well-acted (with a genuine performance from Bradley Cooper). There isn’t much to compete with it. The best thing about You Can’t Take it With You was Annaleigh Ashford’s unforgettably comic, charming performance.
Taken as a whole, the 2014-2015 season – especially if one looks beyond Broadway – had more than its share of pleasures. The answer to the perennial question, for this year, therefore, is that it was, in fact, a Rocky Mountain High.