Lost in the Funhouse

Broadway musicals have entered a new phase. Now if only they could get it right.

With the quick folding earlier this year of The Woman in White and the justifiably dismal response to Lestat, we can safely say that we've come to the end of a phase: The era of the musical as corporate techno-megalith is over. Like other species of dinosaurs, it won't disappear instantaneously: Tarzan looms ahead, with vine leaves in its hair. But the form will obviously find fewer imitators: It always cost too much to create, and it never made knowledgeable people happy. Though nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, as the saying goes, any number of people have made money by knowing how quickly the public changes its mind when it notices that its intelligence is being underestimated.

The Producers, The Full Monty, Hairspray, and even that vast disheartening inanity called Mamma Mia! were clear signs that the public wanted something else: human beings, embodied by actors it could love and laugh at, rather than hollowly heroic figures bellowing in spotlights; jokes and vitality and cynicism instead of pseudo-operatic pomposity; and brightly lit events it could recognize as both absurd and everyday.

Now three new musicals strive mainly to divert and please the audience, without any earnest worry about the niceties of how they do so. The Wedding Singer, based on a movie that some people recollect fondly, wants to please with '80s nostalgia and mildly goofball romantic comedy. Hot Feet wants to please with moralizing melodrama and dazzling dancing flesh. And The Drowsy Chaperone wants to please with a kind of jittery, self-conscious camp that kids our suddenly musical-less situation. None of them is a masterpiece; the first and third will probably please audiences enough to hang on for a while.

Sutton Foster gets her kicks in The Drowsy Chaperone.
photo: Joan Marcus
Sutton Foster gets her kicks in The Drowsy Chaperone.

Details

The Wedding Singer
Al Hirschfeld Theatre

Hot Feet
Hilton Theatre

The Drowsy Chaperone
Marquis Theatre

Hot Feet, despite its corps of spectacular dancers and some passages of fairly astounding choreography by Maurice Hines, probably won't: The surrounding elements are too crude. Heru Ptah's book has nothing but coarse obviousness going for it. The score, by Maurice White and various collaborators, mixes new plot-based numbers with his old Earth, Wind & Fire hits, producing danceable rhythms but not much theatrical effectiveness. Hines, who also conceived and directed the show, has little sense of character: The acting is as garish as James Noone's sets. Keith David's fine singing voice goes underused; Ann Duquesnay's irritatingly mannered one is lethally overworked. Sadly, the show's two lead dancers—Vivian Nixon and Michael Balderrama, who play the doomed lovers—are artists of such powerful presence, displaying such esprit and such staggering skill, that you want to love the whole unlovable mess just for their sake.

The Wedding Singer is classier, in its low-class way. Here the musical's creators are more knowing, but the basic material is weak. The self-conscious period references make little impression, and the mock-'80s score succeeds only too well at being imitative. But the show has a cheerfully vulgar New Jersey spirit—much more so than the overrated Jersey Boys—and Rob Ashford's choreography has a bouncy wit that you don't need a textbook on '80s trivia to enjoy. The leads, Stephen Lynch and Laura Benanti, proffer the kind of silly-sweet likability that used to be the hallmark of juveniles in old-style musical comedies with beloved clowns like Bert Lahr and Nancy Walker in the leads; that today the juveniles are expected to be the clowns too says something about the shrinkage of our national horizons. Felicia Finley, as a scheming ex-girlfriend of Lynch's, and Rita Gardner, as his grandmom, inject some ancillary spark, but the incidental fun, while keeping the show pleasantly buoyant, only points up the absence of any center.

Better and more frequent fun, disguising an even emptier core, is the formula of The Drowsy Chaperone, which, while wallowing in the nostalgic foolery of its mashed-up tribute to the absurdities of pre-1950 shows, constantly interrupts its own party with reminders of today's bleak reality. Starting from the fishy premise of a lonely guy trying to cheer himself up with his favorite original cast album, it goes nowhere narratively: Nothing dramatic happens to alter either the lonely guy's lonely room or the nonsensical show that springs to life around him, but the nothing is filled with appealing actors, ancient jokes, and gaudy gewgaws. Some of the cast overact relentlessly, but Eddie Korbich's tap dancing is a wonder, Georgia Engel and Edward Hibbert are adorable, co-author Bob Martin makes an appealingly lunkish narrator, and who could kvetch about a musical where the hero has to sing the hit love song blindfolded on roller skates? The show barely exists, but it's what we've been waiting for—a paradox that will only be resolved when somebody produces a better show and we know we're out of this transitional phase.

 
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