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Summertime on Broadway 

Charlotteans heading to NYC have plenty to watch

There are plenty of good reasons to like New York in June, particularly when the weather is fine and your air conditioner hasn't run low on Freon. My wife Sue and I found ourselves up in Gotham barely a week after the 2013 Tony Award winners were announced — with what seemed to be about two million tourists — and were able to catch up with many of the big winners just before a heat wave struck.

All of the Broadway plays we saw will be running into August at the very least, while none of the musicals has announced a closing date. Bargains are available on many of the "really big shews" at the TKTS booth, located right in the heart of Times Square. In fact, the redesigned TKTS has become a tourist destination in its own right, a great vantage point for taking in the lights and the crowds.

Here's what we saw and how I saw it:

Sigourney Weaver in the Best Play Tony winner Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
  • Sigourney Weaver in the Best Play Tony winner Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (***3/4 out of four) — A serial mocker of Russian, American and English masterworks for the past 40 years, Christopher Durang has finally won his first Tony Award with this gem. It wasn't because the playwright narrowed his focus. As you would expect from the title, Vanya takes dead aim at Anton Chekhov's lachrymose comedies. But Durang also mashes Greek tragedy into his bosky farmstead with a convulsing housekeeper, Cassandra, somewhat altered since the seer's previous appearances in Agamemnon and The Trojan Women.

Vanya and Sonia are the residents of set designer David Korins' homey rendition of a mountain lodge, tethered there for most of their lives caring for their now-deceased parents. The third sibling, who has led her life with conspicuous success, returns home to bask in the adulation of the townspeople and reboot her flagging career, with plans to sell the family property – without consulting or comforting her family. Really, Durang has provided more than sufficient anguish to go round for all three siblings, each one getting to shine in a delectable monologue.

Sigourney Weaver is conspicuously brilliant as the celebrity Masha, a role that her longtime friend Durang has wickedly custom-tailored for the aging Hollywood star. She gets to lord it over Vanya and Sonya, regress into a Snow White dress for a provincial costume party, lead along a brainless boy-toy in her wake (Spike), and flit from one preternatural self-indulgence to another. Until Masha's arrival, Kristine Nielsen carries the comedy as Sonya, smashing the cottage crockery and soliloquizing. Masha initially stokes Sonya's self-pity even more before we detect ignition of her pent-up hostility, so that the downtrodden sister at her zenith succeeds in making Masha downcast.

Playing straight man to Sonya's early tantrums, consenting to be one of Masha's dwarves, and then refereeing the sisters' strife, David Hyde Pearce as Vanya gives what seems to be an underpowered performance in an underpowered role. But deep in Act 2 – the show ran a hefty 2 hours and 11 minutes plus intermission – Pearce becomes the king of the monologue hill with a bodacious tirade that starts off targeting Spike but ends up encompassing modernity. Perhaps Durang's most breathtaking harangue.

Pearce's majestic rant even dwarfs the early outpouring we hear from Shalita Grant midway through Act 1, an eruption so bizarre that I was helplessly trying to figure out where Cassandra's incoherence ended and her unintelligibility began. Counterbalancing all these fireworks were the younger folk. Creed Garrick substituted for Billy Magnussen on the night I attended, so there's little more for me to say about Spike other than to promise that he and Masha are well-matched. Liesel Allen Yeager bestows a bucolic innocence upon Nina, the next door who worships Masha while enflaming her jealousy. That's a vulnerable little chink in the celebrity's self-assurance that widens gloriously to a sinkhole by evening's end. (Julie White replaced Sigourney Weaver July 28, continuing through the end of the run on Aug. 25.)

THESE BOOTS WERE MADE FOR WALKING: A scene from Kinky Boots, this year's Tony Award winner for Best Musical. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
  • THESE BOOTS WERE MADE FOR WALKING: A scene from Kinky Boots, this year's Tony Award winner for Best Musical. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Kinky Boots (***1/2) – When it comes to picking up edgy, somewhat unsung movies with liberal-leaning politics of inclusion and turning them into smash-hit Broadway musicals, Harvey Fierstein is the reigning Midas with the golden touch. After the most recent revival of Fierstein's La Cage aux Folles in 2011, his most lauded book to that point, the raspy-voiced former female impersonator cranked out the Tony Award-winning musical of 2012, Newsies, and this year's winner.

Ultimately, it's an affirmative story about Charley Price, forced to return from London to his provincial hometown, where he has inherited his father's floundering shoe factory. Desperate times call for radical entrepreneurship, so after Charlie meets a charismatic transvestite who rails about the flimsiness of his footwear, he hatches the idea of devoting the family business entirely to fashioning fashionable boots for kinky men. To make his scheme work, he not only needs the support of his hidebound rural employees, he needs the inspiration – the design flair – of Lola, the transvestite who is the fountainhead of his enterprise.

Navigating these difficulties also entails some personal growth, for Charlie must outgrow his smartly materialistic fiancé and confront his ingrained prejudices. For his own inspiration, I suspect Fierstein called most on Hairspray, the 2003 Tony Award winner that saw him originate the role of Edna Turnblad. Unlike his other books, this one bridges racial lines.

As a result, Billy Porter not only draws the more flamboyant character in Lola, he also gets the more colorful music to perform – and he knocks everything he touches out of the park. Although Fierstein gives him some nice rough edges to work with, and Cyndi Lauper, who came on board to write the tunes and the lyrics, favors him with a catchy "Step One" to rock on when Charlie decides on his fateful business gamble, Stark Sands is thoroughly upstaged as our hero. Pretty quickly, too, when Porter follows with his galvanic "Sex Is In the Heel."

Lauper throws herself with surprising adroitness into her first musical score, and she even puts herself into the show briefly. That's when Annaleigh Ashford takes her turn upstaging Sands as Lauren, the capable local girl who finds herself falling for Charlie as he begins to grow into his authority and act more boldly. Even if the color of her hair is relatively mundane, when Ashford sings "The History of Wrong Men," there's so much winsome quirkiness in her delivery that Lauper herself almost materializes on the spot.

The Nance (***1/4) – In the parlance of burlesque, a nance was a comedian who drew laughs by acting flamboyantly gay without explicitly acknowledging his sexuality. Chauncey, the title character in Douglas Carter Beane's absorbing new comedy-drama, is among the last of his breed, living a double life while performing on the nightly bill at the Irving Place Theatre in New York. He's doubly endangered because, in 1937, burlesque is dying and because, out on the street, the cops in Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's town are on the prowl at all hours, busting homosexuals who dare to be openly intimate.

At the outset, Chauncey meets up with Ned at an automat, a favorite spot for afterhours pick-ups. But Ned is new in town, much younger and less sophisticated, so what he's looking for – much to Chauncey's surprise and inconvenience after they adjourn to his apartment – is a relationship rather than a casual, uncomplicated one-nighter.

Nathan Lane is likely the fulfillment of the playwright's dreams as Chauncey, getting ample space to strut his stuff in burlesque shticks onstage at the Irving while flashing his dramatic prowess in his romantic clinches with Ned. It's a truly stellar performance by Lane, and his presence alone adds suggestive layers. But Beane becomes far too enamored with the showbiz half of his story – and perhaps Lane's comical bravura – for the greater good of his script. So we end up with a fascinating, diverting middleweight that dances gracefully around an explosive heavyweight issue for gays: the parallel between LaGuardia's Gotham cops and Hitler's Nazi Gestapo.

As a result, Jonny Orsini draws a supporting role as Ned that is hardly more prominent than Lewis J. Stadlen's as Efram, Chauncey's straight man onstage and the theater manager. A true stage veteran who is noticeably older than Lane, Stadlen gives the burlesque bits all the bawdy, zesty tang you could want with a seedy suggestion of their decrepitude. Orsini is no less aptly cast in his Broadway debut, offering an earnest, sensitive take on Ned without a trace of vanity. I wish Beane had given more depth to Ned and more historical weight to the drama, but the comedy, the music by Glen Kelly, and the girls – particularly Jenni Barber, Andréa Burns, and Cady Huffman – are all delectable diversions. (Closing Aug. 11.)

Pippin (Photo: Joan Marcus)
  • Pippin (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Pippin (***) – Revivals of early Stephen Schwartz musicals are often more like resuscitations, for the composer wasn't really sold on coupling his tunes with solid books until he'd already shepherded Godspell (1971), Pippin (1972), and The Magic Show (1974) to the Big Apple. Breaking down the conventions of narrative and replacing them with romper room antics was still working for Schwartz back in the '70s. Jazzed up with Bob Fosse's choreography/direction, Pippin had the longest Broadway run of them all.

The poverty of the book by Roger O. Hirson and Fosse – basically the fables of Candide and The Fantasticks loosely transported to the Age of Charlemagne – make it a risky business not to have the famed Fosse choreography along for the ride. Conceptually, director Diane Paulus has her Fosse and changes it too. A little of the original choreo survives intact with new choreography by Chet Walker listed "in the style" of Fosse. Paulus's transformative stroke is substituting circus and magical spectacle for the original vaudeville style.

But to what extent, then, is Paulus directing? It's Gypsy Snider of Les 7 Doigts de la Main, the outfit that brought us the grungy acrobatics of Traces, whose circus creation assembles all the sideshow talent for the spectacular "Magic to Do" opening and teaches tricks to all the principals – all the way down to Pippin's grandma, who soars on a trapeze, by god. Paulus certainly earns her Tony Award, but it's mostly Snider's work with Andrea Martin that catapulted her to the featured actress Tony as Grandma Bethe on that trapeze, though the follow-the-bouncing-ball singalong ladled onto her "No Time at All" was memorably saccharine.

As the heir to Charlemagne, Pippin's epic Avenue Q-quest to find a purpose for his life drives the story, but Matthew James Thomas's searches for his "Corner of the Sky" are decisively upstaged at every turn. Terrence Mann is still dashing enough as Charlemagne to wipe the floor with the young pup, and there's extra delight in watching the new juggling tricks this old dog has learned. Nonetheless it's Patina Miller who takes charge as the Leading Player, narrating this clunky story with enough Fosse pizzazz — hands, hips, and legs — to achieve lift-off, with a voice that sets things ablaze.

Sadly, when Miller and her Tony Award charisma recede to the background, and we're not hearing Schwartz's best tunes, Paulus and Snider's ministrations are more than this cute little '70s show can bear, exposing its weaknesses instead of hiding them. Trimmed for touring, this might turn out to be a better show when it hits the road.

The Trip to Bountiful (**1/2) – Estimates of how old Cicely Tyson was on the night she captured her first Tony Award range as high as 88, so her portrayal of Mrs. Carrie Watts may have been my last chance to get what all the shouting is about. Carrie is an old woman imprisoned in a Houston apartment with her son Ludie and his vain, scornful, materialistic wife Jessie Mae, looking for an opportunity to fly the coop and return to her girlhood home. Horton Foote's script, which ran barely a month in its 1953 Broadway debut, has already passed Jessie Mae in age and is beginning to home in on Carrie. But unlike Carrie on her liberating homecoming trip, this revival directed by Michael Wilson takes a couple of wrong turns.

Foote's script was fairly colorblind in its original incarnations, when Lillian Gish brought Carrie to the stage and Geraldine Page carried her onscreen. But Wilson and screen actor Cuba Gooding Jr. are too eager to steer Ludie's weak uxoriousness into a wheedling, mousey, henpecked zone routinely exploited in black TV sitcoms. And when Carrie is freed from Jessie Mae's constraints, finally venturing to sing a hymn full-out in a faraway bus station in the middle of the night, everyone seems content – including the audience – to turn the Stephen Sondheim Theatre into a church revival meeting.

These broad strokes contrast uncomfortably with the hyper-delicacy of the drama. The bounty that Carrie finds in her hometown of Bountiful barely exceeds the fulfillment of her resolution to journey there and the satisfaction of her curiosity about what has happened since she left. Time has nearly finished obliterating the townspeople she knew and demolishing the home where she grew up, just like it's almost through with Carrie herself. Yet Carrie is content with all that.

Before and after her melodic outburst, I found Tyson underpowered and often unintelligible, her concept of Carrie simplistic and two-dimensional. Gooding's simpleton take on Ludie chimed well with Tyson's approach but was far more annoying. Portraying the tyrant Carrie must escape, Vanessa Williams was only slightly north of how hateful Jessie Mae should be – and far more successful at stirring my emotions with her self-centered regality than anyone else onstage.

Carrie's dependence on the kindness of strangers is just another aspect of the story that annoys me, but they are all beautifully rendered, beginning with Condola Rashad as the slightly prissy military wife who abets Carrie's escape. In a quietly nuanced performance, we see that Thelma is slightly embarrassed to be intruding yet unable to resist giving Carrie the care and respect she deserves. Tom Wopat continues in a similar vein as the Bountiful sheriff, constrained by the law yet responsive to the elderly fugitive in his custody. Together, Thelma and the sheriff are subtle rebukes to the way Jessie Mae and Ludie treat Carrie. Far subtler than they deserve, I'd say. (Closing Oct. 9)

Once (Photo: Joan Marcus)
  • Once (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Once (**1/4) – Last year, this was the new musical that theatre people were eager to see, a remake of the film that starred guitarist Glen Hansard and pianist Markéta Irglová, the duo who wrote the music and lyrics. By the time Sue and I caught up with it, we couldn't figure out why. The stage version is more welcoming than the film, that's for sure, for the stage has been turned into a pub, and a considerable portion of the audience lines up to be served their jolly beverages before the show begins and later during intermission.

But the score, played by the actors themselves, is largely monochromatic even though its acoustic, guitar-heavy texture decisively departs from the instrumentation of most musicals. And the story! Let's just say that the collaboration between the singer Guy and his Czech mentor Girl relies heavily on our buying into their assumption that romance between them is taboo. Though Guy's girlfriend and Girl's husband have abandoned them, they are the reasons that intimacy is resisted – over and over. He's so hurt that she can't possibly move in. She's married, perishing the thought for him.

Maybe if there were some chemistry between the star-crossed, ex-crossed lovers, I might be ferried along with the flow. But after the original Glen and Markéta, this is the second or third generation of actor/musician substitutes attempting to rekindle their thwarted romantic spark. With Joanna Christie and David Abeles, it may be presumptuous to say there is any attempt at intimacy, spiritual or otherwise. Angst is way too big a word for their frustration or their joint artistic struggle. It's all about the music on the surface, and if there are hormones percolating below, the cool diffidence of both Christie and Abeles has distilled them to the vanishing point.

Hopefully, the touring version that comes to Charlotte will sport live protagonists who are more alive than these. Otherwise, brace yourself for disappointment.

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