Mark Shenton’s top 10 New York theatre shows for summer 2017
I just got back from one of my regular New York stints to round off the season that culminated with the presentation last Sunday of this year's Tony awards – Broadway's greatest annual pat on its own back. Here are my top 10 picks for anyone heading to New York this summer, both on and off Broadway, old and new.
1. Dear Evan Hansen
This tender, beautiful musical about teenage anxiety, loneliness, social media and suicide wasn't exactly an easy commercial sell, but it has absolutely resonated with audiences to become a runaway success. Confirming that success, it has now been anointed with the Tony award for best musical, with its young break-out star Ben Platt being named best actor in a musical. The score, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, also won the Tony for best original score written for the theatre; the duo have already won an Oscar this year for their lyrics for La La Land. Tickets are going to be hard to come by; but it’s worth trying.
2. Hello, Dolly!
Of course this is already the hottest (and most pricey) ticket in town, even before the Tony; now it has won Tonys for best musical revival and for stars Bette Midler and Gavin Creel, it's going to be even harder to find a ticket for this smashing revival of the Jerry Herman classic. In my review, I wrote that "the roar that goes up from the audience when Midler first appears threatens to stop the show before it even starts. But she more than earns it. At 71, she still has expert comic timing".
3. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
This quirky, immersively staged new musical transferred from Off-Broadway to the Imperial, which has been totally transformed into an in-the-round space with walkways cutting through the auditorium. Based on a passage of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, it was the frontrunner among this year's Tony nominees – earning 12 nominations, more than any other show – but only translated them into wins for sets and lighting. Josh Groban, the headliner recording star who made his stage acting debut in the show, departs on July 2; he will be replaced by original Hamilton cast member Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan.
4. Groundhog Day
Tim Minchin and Danny Rubin's stage version of the film of the same name (that was scripted by Rubin) transferred from London's Old Vic to Broadway, and is probably my favourite of this year's new musicals there – a really original, heartfelt musical about becoming trapped, quite literally in our lives, learning to let go and moving on. As I wrote in my review of the Broadway transfer for The Stage: "Popular psychology always urges us to live in the moment; but what, this show asks, what would happen if we found ourselves trapped in one, replaying the same day over and over again? Frankly, if that moment included seeing this particular show again and again, I would be a happy man. Tim Minchin’s musical is as hilarious as it is bracing." Andy Karl, as the hapless weatherman Phil Connors, is a stunning leading man.
5. Come from Away
A folk-based musical that takes a real-life event that happened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when US airspace was shut and 38 America-bound planes were diverted to a small town in Newfoundland, Come from Away is a bracing, original show. As I wrote: "Musicals are good at creating communities: they herd stories together, held in the embrace of music. Sometimes it's a shotgun marriage, where the form strains against the content, but here, in this poignant true-life story of instant community building in crisis, there is something bigger: a sense of hope."
6. Sweeney Todd
I've probably seen more productions of Stephen Sondheim's astonishing London-set gothic horror musical than just about any other show and it still has a rare capacity to surprise again and again. This production originated in a working London pie shop in Tooting; that pie shop has now been meticulously recreated in a venue in Greenwich Village, staged on and around the tables that the audience sit at. It has a startling and confrontational immediacy; and newly re-cast with the velvet-voiced Norm Lewis in the title role and Carolee Carmello as the amoral Mrs Lovett, it thrilled me yet again when I saw it again last week.
Last year, Hamilton inevitably dominated the Tonys; Waitress failed to turn any of its nominations into wins, but a year later it is still running successfully. That's a testament to a show that's full of heart and great songs by Broadway debutant Sara Bareilles; she's just completed a stint appearing in the lead role of her own show, which I caught last week, and she was completely sensational. Of course the songs are written in her own "voice" (she's also recorded a concept album of it before the show opened), so they feel doubly-Bareilles when actually sung by her. But she also proved to be an effective actor, too, bringing real sensitivity and charm to the role. She has been succeeded by Betsy Wolfe.
8. A Doll's House, Part 2
Though the Tony award for best play went to Oslo (now London-bound to the National in September), the play that everyone is talking about in New York seems to be Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2, and deservedly so. This provocative sequel to Henrik Ibsen's play finds Nora 15 years later, seeking a formal divorce from the husband she walked out on in the original. Acted with ferocity and intelligence with a Tony-winning lead performance from Laurie Metcalf as Nora, it is spellbinding stuff. It has had its original limited run now extended to January 7, 2018.
9. War Paint
I also re-visited War Paint last week, partly to relish again the lead performances of Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as rival cosmetics giants Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden respectively. As I wrote in my review: "Michael Greif’s production is a multi-layered, extraordinarily textured story of the business of beauty and fashion that lets the women put, as the show has it, their best faces forward." And it enables LuPone and Ebersole to put their best voices forward, too.
10. Michael Moore's The Terms of My Surrender
We've seen the polemic films – Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore in TrumpLand – but now for the first time he takes to a Broadway stage with a show that poses a tantalising question: can a Broadway show bring down a sitting president? I can hardly wait to find out. It begins previews on July 28 at the Belasco Theatre prior to an official opening on August 10.