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Part One: 2015 Broadway reviews 

Hand to God, Finding Neverland and more

It's that time again. The time when Perry Tannenbaum, CL's longtime theater critic reports on his New York City adventures after watching the latest productions on Broadway and off. Here's what he saw and how they rate:

Something Rotten!. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
  • Something Rotten!. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Something Rotten! (***1/2 out of 4) — There have been a couple of musicals in the new millennium that have been more wicked and corrosive with their satire, but neither Urinetown nor The Book of Mormon is funnier than this zany Renaissance brew, conceived by the songwriting team of Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick. You'll find Something Rotten! extra delicious if you know your musicals and your Shakespeare fairly well.

The book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell targets both. Living beneath the shadow of the great Bard, like all the other significant playwrights of Elizabethan England, Nick Bottom wants to outdo and outshine Shakespeare. Bottom doesn't have the talent, so he cheats, relying on a soothsayer to reveal the future of theatre. The raggedy Nostradamus amazes Bottom by disclosing that the future is in musicals — and Bottom reluctantly believes him, although each new detail about the new genre seems more and more improbable. Audiences will sit through this dreck? We do exactly that while Bottom disbelieves, laughing both at him and ourselves.

Resolving to write a musical, Bottom realizes that he has nothing to say, necessitating a return trip to Nostradamus. Here is where we grasp what a truly down-market soothsayer Bottom is relying on, for Nostradamus prophecies that Shakespeare's most important future work will be Omelette. Bottom's plan to top the Bard is indeed a perfect recipe for failure.

Rejecting all those academic suppositions you may have heard in high school — that Shakespeare was underappreciated, unknown, or pure fiction — the Kirkpatricks make Shakespeare a rock star. Yes, he's a genius, but he's a rogue genius who will steal anything from Plutarch and Ovid right on down to his rival Christopher Marlowe. So as juicy as the clueless, blundering role of Bottom is for the charismatic Brian d'Arcy James, he is doubly upstaged during his marvelous misadventures.

First, we get Brad Oscar as Nostradamus, stopping the show with his "A Musical" revelation, even more bizarre than he was in either of the roles he portrayed in The Producers. Then comes the Tony Award performance of Christian Borle, delivering two showstoppers as Shakespeare, the glitzy and arrogant "Will Power" and the faux brooding "Hard to Be the Bard."

There's extra punch in the subplot, with Bottom's brother Nigel in love with the daughter of Brother Jeremiah, the most anti-theatre preacher in London. The extra boost of comedy there lies in the repressed theatrical urges of the censorious Puritan, given an unmistakably gay tinge by Brooks Ashmanskas.

Underhanded as Shakespeare is, the Kirkpatricks and O'Farrell make it impossible to despise him, for they themselves strive constantly to outdo him in larceny, stealing from every musical they can wedge into this improbable yarn. Cats, Wicked, Into the Woods, Sound of Music are just part of the cavalcade in a musical that already feels like a mashup of Spamalot, The Producers, and Pippin. With stage direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw, set by Scott Pask, and costumes by Gregg Barnes, the spectacle is as vibrant as the wit.

Hand to God. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
  • Hand to God. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Hand to God (***1/2) — Avenue Q meets The Exorcist in this bizarre tale of a troubled teen, Jason, whose play therapy with a sock puppet in a Texas church basement turns into demonic possession. Jason's recently widowed mom, Margery, leads the teen group, not quite recovered from the family trauma but already fielding multiple sexual overtures. Not only has the dashing Pastor Greg fallen for Marge, but the most delinquent teen, Timothy, is also captivated by her perky, scatter-brained charm.

Of course, Jason has a front-row seat for all of his mom's clumsy dealings with Greg and Timothy, piling some Hamlet-like stresses onto his difficult adjustment to his father's death, for which he's already partially blaming Margery. Tyrone, the puppet that affixes himself to Jason's left arm, vents all the venom that lurks inside Jason's troubled soul. By the middle of Act 2, we're far past hearing the potty-mouthed bon mots of Avenue Q and veering past Martin McDonaugh's domain of dark comedy/violence as Tyrone transforms the church meeting room with its puppet stage into a den of Satan.

The mousy Ophelia of the story, Jessica, triggers another set of tensions. She may like Jason even more than he likes her, but she's quite capable of critical thinking when she hears Tyrone's nasty filth. Her keen observations spark Jason's first attempt to discard Tyrone, launching the most intense conflict in the play — within Jason.

Robert Askins' sensational script, subtitled "A New American Play" on the playbill cover, could stand to be a little more American in its focus — more about how corrosive Texas-style religion leads to all the shocking outcomes we see. But if Askins' designs on us are more like Tracy Letts' Bug than his August: Osage County, the drama is still a springboard for rewardingly nuanced performances from the supporting cast and astounding work from Steven Boyer starring as Jason/Tyrone.

Without resorting to ventriloquism — that would be more than Jason is asked to do crouching behind a puppet stage — Boyer creates an increasingly radical differentiation between the human character and Tyrone. Wonderful choices by Boyer and director Moritz von Stuelnagel keep the heart of this drama pounding frantically. As the sock puppet becomes crueler, more controlling, and diabolical, the absence of apparent artifice makes the pathology more horrifying as Jason's personality tilts toward his tormentor's.

As Jason's bizarre change gathers momentum, Geneva Carr comes across more sympathetically as the put-upon Margery. Surely she can't be the cause of all this! Jason's emotional tailspin becomes one more thing she can't cope with when the two men slavering over her are already more than she can handle. This growing sympathy for Carr as Margery makes the denouement that much more stunning.

Marc Kudisch is slick, suave, and sanctimonious as Pastor Greg. He is far more civilized than the beastly boss he portrayed in the musicalized 9 to 5, yet a similarly persistent lecherousness lurks beneath the surface. I wouldn't be surprised if Askins and von Stuelnagel both conceived Timothy as the embodiment of what we expect the liberated Tyrone to be, for that's how Michael Oberholtzer plays him — with a slight overlay of thuggish conceit. When Tyrone utterly surpasses expectations, I was actually a little ambivalent toward Timothy when he received his retribution. Not for long.

On the Town.
  • On the Town.

On the Town (***) — A musical set in the heart of Manhattan, peopled with lusty sailors and willing women, figures to be top of the heap on Broadway, especially when Leonard Bernstein is composing the music and the famed team of Comden and Green is writing the book and lyrics. Critics seem to be adoring this revival largely because there's really nothing glaring to find fault with. But after the opening "New York, New York" ensemble, so rousing and anthemic, the show loses its mojo.

There's never another showstopper like it. "Lonely Town," "Lucky to Be Me," and "Some Other Time" are all lovely songs, but they're respectively brooding, ruminative, and wistful, not the stuff of great climaxes or denouements. The storyline disintegrates more disastrously after Gabey, Ozzie, and Chip come ashore, where Gabey falls in love with a picture of Miss Turnstiles, the monthly queen of the New York subways. With true American can-do spirit, Ozzie and Chip agree to help Gabey on his quixotic quest to find Miss Turnstiles during their 24-hour leave.

Except they don't. After splitting up to help Gabey, Ozzie and Chip are quickly waylaid. Chip is snared by Hildy, a cab driver whose idea of showing the city's sights to the sailor is inviting him up to her room. Ozzie's search never gets past the Museum of Natural History, where he finds Claire de Loone among the cavemen and dinosaurs. The archeologist lures Ozzie to her apartment, despite the fact that she's engaged to a prominent judge, probably because hizzoner is immune to jealousy.

Actually, Gabey doesn't need much help, finding Ivy Smith at Carnegie Hall, where Miss Turnstiles is taking voice lessons. By night, Ivy's a dancer at a cheap Coney Island joint, so her resistance isn't any more formidable than Hildy's or Claire's. We're barely past midway in Act 1 when Gabey has made his conquest and set a rendezvous with Ivy late that evening. From here on, Comden and Green (who played Claire and Ozzie in the original 1944 Broadway show) are at pains to strew the couples' paths with complications. Neither tension nor comedy abounds as numerous New Yorkers, including Claire's judge, chase the sailors around town.

On the other hand, the original On the Town was conceived and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, so it has always sported a rich vein of dance. In this revival, a fresh Atlantic breeze seems to waft through the Lyric Theatre each time Joshua Bergasse's choreographic ideas are unleashed and Jess Goldstein's costume designs are set in motion. Even here, there's more grace than fire.

Is it just me or has the all-for-one concept we see here, in The Three Musketeers, The Mod Squad, and Charley's Angels lost its appeal? When those sailor costumes aren't dancing across the stage, the protagonists lurking within must struggle extra hard to break free of their, um, uniformity. Aside from my professional stress in keeping up with who's who, I found nothing to dislike in Tony Yazbeck as Gabey, Clyde Alves as Ozzie, or Jay Armstrong Johnson as Chip. All of them are good sailors, no better or worse than I expect Donald O'Connor would have been in these pallid roles.

Ultimately, all three sailors are defined by the women they pair up with. Why not? They're far more varied and interesting. On the strength of sheer earthiness, Alysha Umphress stuck most vividly in my memory as Hildy the cabby, but I was also impressed with the vitality Elizabeth Stanley injected into Claire. Of course, the big news in this production is Misty Copeland, the first African-American to become a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre. She'll be joining the cast next month as Ivy, replacing Megan Fairchild, who is quite good.

Copeland is only slated to perform from August 25-September 6, so her participation figures to be an instance of colorblind casting. That's a pity. An interracial connection between Gabey and Ivy might be the spark this bland show needs.

Finding Neverland. (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
  • Finding Neverland. (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Finding Neverland (**1/4) — I'm not sure I've ever seen a more finely manicured or less imaginative show about the unlocking of imagination. Adapted from the Johnny Depp biopic purporting to show how James M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan, James Graham's book skirts the actual history of the playwright's relationship with the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her five sons — without steering his narrative to any artful purpose.

Instead, there are scattered signposts for us to recognize as the budding friendship shambles on: a boy named Peter, a tyrannical theatre producer whose protruding cane makes a curved shadow on a wall, and a shaggy dog. The Llewelyn Davies children are all adorable enough, but only the troubled Peter — affectingly played by Aidan Gemme — contributes anything concrete to Barrie's creation. Just being with them and losing himself in their play seems to cure the writer's block that afflicts Barrie when the curtain rises.

A silent Pan, flown by Melanie Moore, frames the action, and director Diane Paulus whips up enough fairy magic — with "air sculptor" Daniel Wurtzel and swirls of cascading glitter — to satisfy that craving for wonder that Pan fans young and old bring to the event. We can't stay in Victorian England all evening long, and escape routes aren't as readily available as in Barrie's play, so the very idea of a Captain Hook must lead to a shipboard fantasy sequence, and a rehearsal of the Peter Pan premiere must be our gateway to Neverland.

Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy never seem to be searching for Neverland in their score, let alone finding it. When they swell with ambition, they give us "Circus of Your Mind," mimicking Andrew Lloyd Webber in his Phantom mode, and when Act 1 ends with "Stronger," it's like the Rocky Balboa anthem when the boxer ran up the steps in Philly, with a gang of pirates providing a lift-that-bale backbeat.

Matthew Morrison, a fixture on Fox's Glee, drew audible adulation as soon as he strode onstage as Barrie, but he never justifies it with his sunny, lightly-brogued, and thoroughly innocuous performance. As the sickly Sylvia, Laura Michelle Kelly is less two-dimensional than Morrison but never the inspiration — or the Wendy Darling — this story could use, and measured by her predictability, Teal Wicks as Barrie's disapproving wife is tedium itself.

An oasis of interest and everyday humanity comes from Charles Frohman, the theatre producer who changes into Hook. Originally played by Kelsey Grammer before he exited in favor of Anthony Warlow, the dual roles were understudied by Paul Slade Smith at the performance we saw. Frohman and the players in his theatre troupe are intended to represent the conventionality the Barrie is striving to transcend. But in their hearty carping, bickering, and pouting, Frohman & Co. ironically give us the most vivid examples of the never-grow-up syndrome that Barrie sanctified with Peter Pan.

Stay tuned for part two of Tannenbaum's off-Broadway experiences in New York City.

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