More Broadway (and off-Broadway) notes

Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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The Broadway season famously straddles two years: it begins after the Tony Awards of the first year and ends with the presentation of the year's next Tony's. The summer and autumn for 2012 saw 18 new shows open between June and December, plus a brief summer return engagement for Fela! and brief Broadway seasons for stand-up Lewis Black, a one-man show starring Mike Tyson and a Broadway engagement by Franki Valli and the Four Seasons. Many of the new shows, of course, were limited engagements, some of them ending their runs in the next fortnight.

The weekend just gone saw the scheduled departures of Grace and Elf, plus the end of the run for War Horse and the early closure of Dead Accounts; and on January 20, Glengarry Glen Ross and Golden Boy both end their limited runs, as well as the end of the run for Peter and the Starcatcher (before it goes full-circle and returns home to where it began, re-opening at Off-Broadway's New World Stages in March).

Though there are also a few new shows coming in over the next fortnight, with the openings of the now previewing The Other Place at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J Friedman on January 10 (that I saw a press performance of on Friday, but can't report on yet), Picnic at the Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre on January 13 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Richard Rodgers on January 18, the only holdover from the autumn run of 18 new openings after January 20 will be Annie.

Jaw, jaw

Leading the way of new musicals in the West End this winter are consecutive transfers from Broadway of the two most recent winners of the Tony Award for Best Musical – The Book of Mormon and Once, which won in 2011 and 2012 respectively, and coming to the Prince of Wales and Phoenix.

The cast for Mormon will be led in the West End by the two actors currently starring in the US national tour, Jared Gertner and Gavin Creel, with Sonia Friedman – co-producer of the transfer – recently telling Baz Bamigboye, "It became clear early on during the audition process in London that we needed the real thing." Of the role of Elder Price, to be played by Creel, she said, "He’s that sort of square-jawed Mormon, and you can’t create that all-American look."

Yet weirdly, it has now been announced that Creel's replacement on the US tour is none other than our very own Mark Evans – a Welshman. No doubt he'll replace Creel in turn in the West End, but what about the "all-American look" it seemed so impossible to create that they needed the real thing?

An escalating problem

New World Stages, located in a former subterranean warren of former cinemas off 8th Avenue, is a theatrical multiplex where former Broadway shows seem to go to die on reduced off-Broadway rates. And confirming the feeling of entering a morgue is the fact that the escalator in the main entrance hall has not been working on each of my last three visits there; a front-of-house staffer told me she had been working there a year and it hasn't worked in all of that time.

After I tweeted this, New World Stages publicly replied, "You caught us! New Year's Resolution: get our escalators working. We have folks working on it as we speak!" Let's hope so; the Freedom Tower (the replacement to the Twin Towers) seems to have been built faster.

Amongst recent specimens, Million Dollar Quartet went there after closing on Broadway; currently Avenue Q is playing there, and it has just been announced that Peter and the Starcatcher will join it in March,

In the case of Avenue Q and Peter and the Starcatcher, the shows have gone full circle, since they both began off-Broadway (at the Vineyard and New York Theatre Workshop respectively), as did Rent which was also recently revived at New World Stages.

Occasionally, though, shows begin their lives there, too – it is at New World Stages that Rock of Ages played before moving to Broadway, and will no doubt one day return to. And right now there are two new musicals getting a New York showing there, too: Bare and Forever Dusty.

The former is a kind of contemporary Spring Awakening meets Glee, in which students at a high school perform a production of Romeo and Juliet in which two of their male numbers fall in love but one refuses to be honest about himself amongst the jocks he hangs out with. It's gleefully performed, too, by an attractive young cast, but its attempts to be both earnest and moving fail as the show overplays its mood of teenage angst in an over-plotted, under achieved mix of cliche and sincerity.

Forever Dusty also delivers cliche and sincerity by turns, but because it doesn't aim as high as Bare, it doesn't have quite as far to fall. It is a by-numbers (and some hit numbers, at that) pop biography, amiable and gritty by turns, about the late, great British singer Dusty Springfield, with a good story, a strong cast and great songs.

Chekhovian chuckles

After a pair of negligible new plays, Grace and Dead Accounts, both of which opened cold on Broadway and both of which closed yesterday, it was refreshing, but less surprising, to find a terrific new play being produced by Lincoln Center Theatre at their downstairs off-Broadway space, the Mitzi Newhouse. (It's one of the weird anomalies of LCT's designation that their main house upstairs, the Beaumont, is a Broadway house, yet downstairs is an off-Broadway one – it's all to do with seating capacities and contractual status of the actors employed to work there).

Not only is Christopher Durang a playwright that the theatre has an established relationship with, but also they have given him a first-rate (and superbly cast) production for his new play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. As the title suggests, there are Chekhovian undertones to the story of a dysfunctional family meeting on a country estate where two siblings (one of them adopted) Vanya and Sonia live on the charity of a third, a glamorous movie star Masha with a taste for much younger men (the object of her affection is a shirtless delight played by Billy Magnussen. (Here's proof of just how delightful!)

This is the funniest new play I've seen for some time – I will not easily forget the hilarious channelling that Sonia does of Maggie Smith in California Suite – but also one of the more piercingly thoughtful, with a brilliant, bracing speech from David Hyde Pierce's Vanya about the state of modern (lack of) communication today. The play, of course, is paradoxically a vibrant statement on how old communication methods – a playwright, actors and an attentive audience – can still engage each of them.

Lincoln Center Theatre also produces away from home, direct to Broadway itself, from time to time; and its new production of Clifford Odets's Golden Boy is exactly the sort of totally gripping, utterly inhabited production that keenly revisits a Broadway classic but casts a spellbinding, beautiful new light on it. LCT is probably the closest New York comes to our National Theatre in terms of quality and the vision of its work, though it is not quite as prolific.

The new (to me) heiress

It was Lincoln Center who in 1995 superbly revived the 1947 Ruth and Augustus Goetz's The Heiress, a stage adaptation of Henry James's novel Washington Square, and gave it a new theatrical life that later saw the National Theatre in London do it too, in a production that starred Eve Best. That 1995 Broadway production was famously reviewed in the New York Times by the late Vincent Canby, a film critic who late in his career was moved over to the theatre beat, in which he produced the classic line that the production starred "a splendid young actress who's new to me, Cherry Jones".

Never mind that Jones was already then a widely-respected stage actress; she was new to Canby, since he was new to the theatre. And now that The Heiress is back on Broadway, in a new commercial outing, I suppose I could just as easily say that its star Jessica Chastain is a young actress who's new to me, though in fact her star power is rapidly on the rise thanks to her prolific film profile.

Yet the production also shows the dangers of throwing a young, theatrically inexperienced actress on the exposed Broadway stage; like Julia Roberts when she made her stage debut in Broadway's Three Days of Rain a few seasons ago, Chastain is simply out of her depth as she struggles to give this role context and meaning. She's not helped by a production by Moises Kaufman that is grindingly slow and heavy handed. Even the presence of more experienced stage hands like David Strathairn, Judith Ivey and Britain's Dan Stevens can't rescue it from tedium.

Who's afraid of Steppenwolf

Broadway at its best is instead a showcase from a regional theatre of another long-time classic: Chicago's Steppenwolf has brought Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? back to piercing new life with company members who have worked regularly at Steppenwolf, but none of whom are stars in their own right.

Tracy Letts has, of course, become a star playwright, particularly for his Chicago masterpiece August: Osage County that went to Broadway and then to the National Theatre, but to see him here as George is to see a brilliant actor utterly inhabiting the role. He is joined by Amy Morton, who starred in August: Osage County, as his wife, and two younger actors Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks, both of them actors (to borrow Canby's phrase) who are new to me, but I'm sure I will see again.

The play blisters anew in their hands, and proves that Broadway doesn't have to be star-driven or gimmicky to succeed – it just has to be good.