The season’s crammed with shows, mostly musicals. James Agee, faced with a similar seasonal pileup in the 1940s, used to give his omnibus movie reviews titles like “Spring Clearance,” and reduce his comments to one or two sentences per film. (His review of You Were Meant for Me, in its entirety: “That’s what you think.”) With five shows to cover—two old, two new, and one already reviewed in its earlier Off-Broadway format—I’ve barely got space to follow Agee’s plan of “saying every good thing I can about each.”
One thought first: Is it just this week, or is the essence of musical theater to pit one weirdo against the system? Since the weirdo’s invariably the most sympathetic character, and the intended audience is the mass that keeps the system going, this structure suggests yet another way in which the musical is (yes, sorry) one of our defining indigenous art forms. This explains (a) why the British musical is inherently doomed to artistic failure (the British, not being a nation of immigrants, don’t have our automatic empathy with outsiders); and (b) why attempts to force the musical upward into opera are likewise doomed. The latter presupposes a stable society to mirror its through-composed form; the musical show, which ironizes everything by juxtaposition, is a much more accurate reflection of our crazy world.
Newyorkers (Manhattan Theatre Club), a breezy, bookless satirical revue, proves my point by celebrating our city as a nest of interlocking outsiderisms, an addiction from which all New York residents are in permanent and defiant nonrecovery. Rich white preppies practice gangsta rap—in waltz time—with blacks hired for the occasion; Irish cops cloak their brutalities in balletic moves from Riverdance; gay clones “who act like Barbie and look like Ken” ponder the presence of “the last straight man in Chelsea”; and the Statue of Liberty yearns for a hot date with the Empire State Building. Despite their largely soft-rock idiom, none of Stephen Weiner and Glenn Slater’s songs would have sounded stylistically out of place in a late-’60s Julius Monk revue. It’s their topics that push the form’s envelope of politeness: Monk would certainly have jibbed at a comic number about assisted suicide. And he would have winced at Christopher Ashley’s impish staging of two of the evening’s three showstoppers, both performed with ecstatic excess by Priscilla Lopez: a hymn to the joys of relocating to Flatbush, sung while reclining atop a trash can, and a saga of cosmetic surgery during which Lopez seems to grow increasingly sutured. Even the third peak, which displays Pamela Isaacs as a Starbucks barista driving the caffeine-needy to frenzies with her slo-mo languor, offers a prole point of view that definitely used to be beyond the genre’s bounds. Newyorkers’ casting, too, has been modernized: the women (Isaacs, Lopez, and Liz Larsen) do the heavy belting and grotesque comedy; the milder men (Stephen de Rosa, Jerry Dixon, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson) get the “charm” numbers and the ballads. Brian Ronan’s sound design is, as usual, heavily overmiked, and conductor Robert Billig makes everybody push their high notes; other than that, I had a thoroughly good time.
At the revised and Broadwayized A Class Act (Ambassador Theatre), Acme Sound Partners’ design has such a heavily canned quality it’s hard to believe there’s an orchestra in the pit. A little of the canned feeling has snuck into the production too: The book, which Off-Broadway tended to harp on songwriter Ed Kleban’s problems and phobias, now just tells us about them calmly; and one of the new cast members has adopted his predecessor’s mannerisms instead of the character’s. Most of the holdover cast members are more strongly grounded, though, and Lonny Price’s Kleban is now a vivid, three-dimensional person. Sara Ramirez, warmly abrasive where Julia Murney was cold and cutting, is a strong addition to the event, and there’s Randy Graff, whose voice and presence are the musical theater’s equivalent of comfort food. Oh, that wonderful, rich, even tone, always in the center of the note. The just-issued CD of the Off-Broadway cast (BMG) reinforces the point that A Class Act‘s principal assets are Kleban’s first-rate songs and Graff. Seeing this screwed-up artist’s frustrating life played out onstage is now a relatively painless experience, but I fret as little about it, listening to his songs, as the audience at Kiss Me, Kate does about Cole Porter’s 19 leg operations.
Ten years before that most famous of Porter triumphs, in 1938, he collaborated with the same playwright spouses, Sam and Bella Spewack, on a far sillier and looser musical with surprisingly dark undertones, Leave It to Me (“Musicals Tonight!,” 14th Street Y). Here the outsider-hero is a blank-brained Kansas simp whose socially ambitious wife has gotten him named ambassador to Moscow by dumping money in FDR’s reelection campaign. Their lives get tangled with those of a smart-aleck newshound whose media-mogul boss also craves the ambassadorial post, a goal the newshound abets so he can romp undisturbed with the mogul’s mistress. Naturally, arrival in Moscow turns everybody’s plans upside down: The news-sharpie’s schemes to get the simp recalled backfire, turning him into a Soviet hero instead; meantime the sharpie falls for a female correspondent; the mogul’s tootsie winds up on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The cartoonlike, loosely strung (but not incoherent) script gave off flickers of wit even at this downtown staged-concert series’s customary laggard pace. Porter’s score, despite the series’s usual so-so singing (Jamie Day and Barbara McCulloh excepted), gave off a good deal more, demonstrating again that the scores of old shows should be left undoctored in revival. Restoring three cut numbers, “Musicals Tonight!” deleted only one necessary item, the topical “patter” to the up-tempo “Tomorrow.” And they perform unmiked. We owe them gratitude: Who knew that Cole Porter could write a first-act finale in strict counterpoint to the “Internationale”?
Porter kidded the left lightly; E.Y. Harburg, Harold Arlen, and the book writers of 1944’s Bloomer Girl (City Center “Encores!,” closed) fell prey to its pieties. Set in upstate New York in 1861, the show chronicles the fictive and highly contrived adventures of the niece of the pioneer feminist who invented “rational dress” for women, whose father handily represents every reactionary thing the bloomerites are against. The “bloomer girls” disrupt a hoop-skirted fashion show, a Southern wastrel helps his own fugitive slave escape to Canada, and the least probable performance ever of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is put on just in time to be halted by news from Fort Sumter. There are some laughs but little life in this rigmarole. Harburg’s perky, word-twisting lyrics (“Utopia” rhymes with “Don’t be a dope, ya dope, ya”) seem to be searching for a different world to describe; much of Arlen’s score replaces his usual emotional generosity with a kind of scholarly sincerity. Is “The Eagle and Me” really one of Sondheim’s favorite songs? I hate its fake-folky sententiousness—though I can’t get the damn banjolike six-note syncopated phrase it’s built on out of my head. (The score does have one great song, “Right as the Rain,” and one very good one, “Evelina.”)
Brad Rouse’s “Encores!” staging coped patiently but not magically with the lumpy material: Kathleen Chalfant and Philip Bosco made a crackly pair of political opponents; sweet-voiced Kate Jennings Grant had the freshness but not the sauce of the young Celeste Holm; Michael Park made her a strong-voiced partner. Everett Bradley performed a thankless role with grace and distinction; first-rate artists like Anita Gillette and Herndon Lackey hovered at the periphery, visibly longing for more to do. And they all cooperatively allowed the evening to be stolen by Jubilant Sykes, who endowed the role of the runaway slave with the abashed charm and vocal lushness of a young Parsifal.
Another young fugitive, not nearly so entertaining, is the half-human half-bat hero of Bat Boy (Union Square Theatre), not a baseball musical. A capricious jumble of horror movie, after-school special, soft-rock romance kitsch, and bad intentional camp, Bat Boy makes the allegedly incoherent books of ’20s and ’30s shows look like models of Ibsenite dramaturgy. It might be funny as a 15-minute skit, but this is a capitalist country, so it has to be marketed as a two-and-a-half-hour “property,” by which time the joke has worn awfully thin. It’s better, I suppose, than wasting the same number of minutes on pretension and false sentiment; but a theater in which there’s no glimpse of truth equally has no chance of inspiring return visits.
Even Bat Boy has human assets, proving that you can’t snuff out all sense of life while making theater, however dumbed-down: Sean McCourt’s limber-legged dancing and snaky charm as the mad scientist (a vet!) who’s the actual cause of the horrors; Kaitlin Hopkins’s warm-toned wistfulness as his victimized wife; Deven May’s wonky physicality in the title role; the nut-brained choreography that Christopher Gattelli’s invented for the title song and several other moments. These glimpses don’t make Bat Boy more endurable, but they offer hope of escape for some of the participants. And a specific small piece of praise to Trent Armand Kendall as the preacher; no critic I know carrying his weight could successfully perform a cartwheel onstage eight times a week.