Seen on Broadway: Twyla Tharp’s long-standing interest in the music of Frank Sinatra hits the Marquis Theatre full force in Come Fly Away, a musical whose slender story of couples forming, breaking up, and reuniting in a ballroom is conveyed by her energetic choreography and his smooth, seductive singing. I’m used to hearing Frank on my iPod so Peter McBoyle’s expansive sound design in the big venue was something of a shock to my ears. After a song or two, however, I adjusted to it. His classic phrasing is seamlessly matched to the 19-piece orchestra playing upstage, and Hilary Gardner’s vocal contributions are an added treat.
Tharp’s Bob Dylan show went unseen by me (and most everyone else) but the earlier Movin’ Out was a revelation. Billy Joel is of a different stature artistically yet his story-driven songs gave that show a stronger spine than this one. Tharp has front-loaded the first act of Come Fly Away with some of Sinatra’s brassiest numbers, perhaps unwisely; that may be enough for some audiences, and the procession of socko dance moves and balletic gymnastics is likely to fatigue even her (and his) staunchest fans. The show improves in the second act, when it slows down and becomes moodier, and, for that matter, sexier, with Katherine Roth’s night-on-the-town clothes coming off (not indecorously). A climactic one-two punch of “My Way” and you-know-what gives the show a rousing send-off.
Playing off James Youmans’ spare yet attractive set LD Donald Holder is conducting a master class all his own. A production like this is ideal for inventive lighting, and it’s all up there—a battalion of moving lights for explosive effects, an LED setpiece above the stage for softer looks, a mirror ball, and a final, fiber-optic Frank. It’s a pleasing display that complements the dancing and helps go down nice ‘n’ easy.
All that’s keeping Lend Me a Tenor from being a first-rate revival is the show itself; that, and the kind of once-in-a-season spark that Mark Rylance brought to a similarly middling farce a couple of seasons back, Boeing-Boeing. Actually, director Stanley Tucci (the Broadway debut for the multi-hyphenate talent) has saved the best for last, with a delightfully frenetic curtain call that seemed to push the already giddily exhausted actors into a final paroxysm of hilarity. If only Ken Ludwig’s 1986 comedy had more curveballs to throw at them; as it is, they seemed to be working triple time to put a mildly enjoyable show across.
That said, the performers do a lot to keep the long-ish production light on its feet. (If ever a show needed to be 100 minutes minus intermission, this is it.) There’s Tony Shalhoub, all slow burns and not at all Monk-like, as a Thirties producer trying to ensure that a world-famous opera singer makes his U.S. debut in Cleveland as scheduled; Justin Bartha (The Hangover) as his timid assistant, who has delusions of thespian grandeur; Anthony LaPaglia as “Il Stupendo,” the womanizing big baby himself; and Jan Maxwell as his suspicious wife, with an accent as broad as a pizza box. They and the rest of the cast seize the laughs Ludwig has provided, and generate a few of their own with their enthusiasm.
Tucci, whose films (like Big Night, with Shalhoub) have a nostalgic bent, clearly loves the period in which the show is set, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting seems to bathe the Music Box in a rosy glow. The warmth of course extends to John Lee Beatty’s set, a hotel suite that is the polar opposite of the deathtrap in A Behanding in Spokane. It has five doors, all of which are slammed regularly, and is divided into a living area and a bedroom; a running joke of the piece is how close the actors can get to the invisible dividing line of the property downstage without crossing over. Peter Hylenski has contributed some clever sound effects, but might have been allowed to do more given the opera buffoonery. Brooke Adams, Shalhoub’s spouse, makes one of her infrequent (and welcome) appearances as Shalhoub’s character’s spouse, and must be eternally grateful to costume designer Martin Pakledinaz for making her a walking sight gag (I won’t say how). She gets guffaws just by standing there, and must be the envy of her fast-moving co-stars.
Seen Off Broadway: The edge that John Kander and the late Fred Ebb brought to the classic musicals Cabaret and Chicago is blunted in The Scottsboro Boys, which funnels a miscarriage of justice in the Depression era through the prism of a minstrel show. In David Thompson’s book, the “boys” are a troupe of performers who are set on giving us the real story about the black teens who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train bound for Memphis, sending them on an odyssey through the court and prison systems. Their MC and interlocutor would prefer they do the cakewalk, but the truth will out as the racist underpinnings of American arts and society are exposed.
That’s a tall order for any show, and The Scottsboro Boys, at the Vineyard through April 18, can’t be faulted for an ambition. Nor can the quality of the cast—we should all be as fortunate as the great John Cullum, as the sly and folksy interlocutor, to sing and dance so well (or at all) at age 80, and Colman Domingo makes his usually vivid impression bearing the weight of history as his opposite among the showmen-within-the-show. Susan Stroman’s choreography is engaging, and requires the cast to assemble the chairs and planks that make up Beowulf Borrit’s cleverly abstracted set into different environments, notably a claustrophobic jail. The physical production is hugely impressive. Kevin Adams’ lighting scintillates in its many moods, Hylenski’s audio crisply conveys every note of the tuneful score, and Toni-Leslie James’ period and period stage costumes are excellent.
Stroman’s razzle-dazzle direction, however, does nothing to illuminate why this non-fictional story is being told this way. The history-as-showbiz metaphor is worn to the stump and unedifying, and a show that means to provoke too often lapses into tastelessness. The “surprise” ending, where a silent black woman identified as “A Lady” in the program suddenly asserts herself, is frankly embarrassing. The one thing that is completely unworkable about The Scottsboro Boys is its concept, which betrays its subject while attempting to commemorate it in a more incisive and less stodgy way than usual; it may be the best musical that I couldn’t wait to see end. —Robert Cashill
Come Fly Away
Scenery: Hudson Scenic (also automation), I. Weiss NY, Showman Fabrication
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: PRG
Lend Me a Tenor
Scenery: Global Scenic Services, Inc.
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: PRG