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Mark Shenton’s New York theatre picks: December 19

Pippin at the Music Box Theater. Photo: Joan Marcus  Pippin at the Music Box Theater. Photo: Joan Marcus 
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I’m currently enjoying the luxury of a month-long visit to New York, my favourite city on the planet – and it is giving me a chance to catch up with everything that’s playing here, as well as revisiting some things I’ve seen before.

 After my round-up of some of the fare in London over the next few weeks, here’s some of what I’ve already seen or will be seeing on this side of the Atlantic…

Pippin – Music Box Theatre

There are a whole bunch of closings imminently, as Broadway does its annual house-clearing ahead of the slow winter months of January and February, and the spring renewals as new shows arrive to replace them.

The show I’m most going to miss is Pippin – a show that, for lots of very personal reasons, means a lot to me (I saw a production as a young teenager in my native South Africa that opened there in 1975, and I still treasure the cast album that starred an American actor called Hal Watters in the title role). I’ve loved it ever since – even though I’d never seen it actually work as a show. That is, until the current Diane Paulus-directed production that came to Broadway in 2013, and is now closing on January 4. This circus-based interpretation does something sensational as well as intensely moving with this musical about a man’s existential crisis: it makes it playful yet poignant and exhilarating.

The show also contains a great mantra for dealing with depression (that I’ve previously written about), but this production is a true antidote to depression, and returning to it, I loved it all over again. Only two of the original six principals remain in the cast: the veteran but still sleek and astonishing Broadway dancer Charlotte d’Amboise, who I’ve been seeing on Broadway regularly for nearly 30 years, and Rachel Bay Jones. It was also delightful to see the wonderful Priscilla Lopez – a veteran of the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line – stealing the show as Berthe.

Once – Bernard B Jacobs Theatre

Regular readers of this blog won’t need reminding what a fan I am of Once – I recently revisited it in London for probably the 10th time to see Ronan Keating take over in the lead. But it was in New York I first fell in love with this show, and its original lead actors Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti. So I may just have to catch it one last time over here before it closes on January 4 – now starring Paul Alexander Nolan, who was so good in the title role of Jesus Christ Superstar that came to Broadway in 2012 from Canada’s Stratford Festival.

The Elephant Man – Booth Theatre

Photo: Joan Marcus
Photo: Joan Marcus

Perhaps I’m just getting too old, but it seems that everything is coming around again and again. I saw the first Broadway revival of The Elephant Man in 2002, when it starred the then fast-rising Billy Crudup and Rupert Graves. Now it’s back again, this time with man-of-the-moment Bradley Cooper in the title role.

The Last Ship – Neil Simon Theatre

I’ve already written about revisiting Sting’s The Last Ship, and I’m sure I’ll be going yet again. Sting has himself joined the cast now (through to January 24 only) alongside a superb cast that includes our own Sally Ann Triplett and Rachel Tucker, plus Broadway regulars such as Aaron Lazar and Fred Applegate. At the return performance I saw lead actor Michael Esper was off, but his understudy Jeremy Woodard was just as compelling.

On the Town – Lyric Theatre

“New York, New York is a helluva town” goes the refrain in Bernstein, Comden and Green’s 1944 musical, and this is quite simply a helluva revival. And yes, I’m going again.

A Delicate Balance – John Golden Theatre

Broadway loves a star-led revival, but there isn’t a classier cast in town than the one being fielded for the woundingly wonderful revival of Edward Albee’s 1966 play A Delicate Balance that won the 1967 Pulitzer prize for drama. I saw the play’s last Broadway revival in 1996, when the cast included Rosemary Harris, George Gizzard and a magnificent Elaine Stritch as Harris’s drunk sister Claire. But this production is even greater, with a cast of six finely-tuned theatre animals giving this quiet yet ferocious drama an elemental power.

While Glenn Close and John Lithgow, of course, went onto substantial screen careers, their careers began in the theatre, and they have loyally returned to it over the years. Close was in the original 1980 production of Barnum (which I didn’t see), but I’ve seen everything she’s done since from the first Broadway run of Stoppard’s The Real Thing (coincidentally back on Broadway right now), opposite Jeremy Irons, to Sunset Boulevard. I’ve also seen Lithgow regularly over the years on the Broadway stage, amongst other things in the original productions of musicals like Sweet Smell of Success and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

But it was great to see them joined by our very own Lindsay Duncan and Clare Higgins, two of Britain’s best stage actresses who’ve both previously appeared on Broadway.

This is Our Youth – Cort Theatre

It’s often said of a Broadway musical that you come out humming the sets, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a play do the same thing – yet the one thing you can’t take your eyes off at This Is Our Youth is the looming set of Manhattan tenements that designer Todd Rosenthal provides behind the bedsit it is set in. I was, it has to be said, more knocked out by that than the rest of it. But then the play no longer surprised me – I’d seen its 1998 Off-Broadway incarnation that starred a young Mark Ruffalo (though he was off the night I went) and several casts that played it in the 2002 West End version, including a young Jake Gyllenhaal (also coincidentally back on Broadway now – see Constellations below).

The River – Circle in the Square

Photo: Richard Termine
Photo: Richard Termine

I naturally saw the short London run of Jez Butterworth’s The River at the Royal Court, where it played in the tiny theatre upstairs; now it is making its Broadway debut at the rather larger Circle in the Square, with Hugh Jackman leading a cast that also includes Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly (the latter also appeared in the Royal Court production). I’m looking forward to seeing it again here, where it plays to February 8.

Constellations – Samuel Friedman Theatre

Another import from the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Nick Payne’s Constellations now also reaches Broadway, in a production starring Jake Gyllenhall and Ruth Wilson. it is now previewing ahead of a January 13 opening.

Side Show – St James Theatre

Yes, yet more deja vu: I also saw the original short-lived 1997 production of Side Show, a musical about conjoined twins that has a score by Henry Krieger (best known for Dreamgirls) and Bill Russell, but its Broadway return now has fared no better at the box office: it closes January 4 after opening in mid-November.

Honeymoon in Vegas – Nederlander Theatre

Now in previews at the Nederlander Theatre, ahead of an official opening on January 15, I also saw Honeymoon in Vegas during its spring try-out at the Paper Mill Playhouse across the river in New Jersey. It’s Jason Robert Brown’s second original musical this year, after The Bridges of Madison County, but I hope it fares better commercially than Bridges managed to.

Liz Callaway/Barb Jungr – 54 Below

Regular readers of this column will know that I love seeing cabaret in New York, and one of my absolutely favourite Broadway songbirds is Liz Callaway. I previously saw her at 54 Below in 2012. She came to London’s Crazy Coqs earlier this year, and I simply can’t wait to see her again here. I’ve also often written admiringly of British cabaret and jazz chanteuse Barb Jungr, so I can’t wait to catch up with her again.

Cafe Society Swing – 59E59 Theatres

British actor/director Simon Green was in the original London cast of Follies in 1987 with Evan Pappas (they played the young Ben and young Buddy respectively). Now Simon is directing Pappas’ return to the stage in Cafe Society Swing at 59E59 Theatres, produced by English producer Richard Darbourne. Set in New York’s first racially integrated club that once hosted peformers like Lena Horne, Count Basie and Billie Holiday, it was once described as “the wrong place for the right people”. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

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