Seen on Broadway: Rather than attempt any potentially ruinous “Americanization” on one of its recent gems, the National Theatre of Great Britain has chosen to export the whole kit and caboodle of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys to the Broadhurst Theatre, and the result is one of the highlights of a season that has seen show after show open in the run up to the Tony nominations. Bennett, author of The Madness of George III and a superb series of playlets seen off-Broadway a few seasons back, Talking Heads, brings a light touch to any number of serious themes, from the enjoyment—and manipulation—of history as practiced by the staff and students of an English school in the mid-1980s to the darker mysteries of the heart and the libido as the male pupils approach graduation. The status-conscious headmaster (Clive Merrison), dismayed that few of the boys have gone on to Oxford or Cambridge, installs Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a fast-talking social climber, to undermine the influence of Hector (Richard Griffiths, as wide as he is tall), a lovably incorrigible aesthete, who could care less where his students end up so long as they absorb the essence of his loose-limbed lectures. A third teacher, Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour, the one woman in the cast), goes by the book and watches the subtle power play that develops, as the students—notably the sexually precocious Dakin (Dominic Cooper), the gentle Posner (Samuel Barnett), and the observant Rudge (Russell Tovey)—size up the new arrival. It would seem that Hector, with his love of old songs, poets, and movies, would have the edge in this contest—but he has a chink in his armor, an over-fondness for the boys that they tolerate, that may prove his undoing as the school year unfolds. Our loyalty is tested and our perceptions shift as Bennett masterfully coordinates the comedy and the drama of the situation, a reminiscence from several points of view.
After two years with the show, every member of the cast is seasoned to perfection, and, happily, not overcooked with the repetition. (A film version is already in the can, for release after the tour, but see it now on the big stage, as it were.) Nicholas Hytner directs, splendidly. The show has a spare, fluorescent-lit school room design, of which the most notable element is the frequent, and apt, use of video segments (directed by Ben Taylor) on a large Scharff Weisberg screen backdrop to move the story through the school year (and take us into Irwin’s present, as a TV host). These are scored to Eighties Brit-pop, notably Madness’ “Baggy Trousers,” which I will now always associate with this show. After the disaster of the cheesy, and closed, Ring of Fire this is a fusion of sound (by Colin Pink) and video to be applauded. The costumes, which tend to the buttoned-down look, and the sets, which roll on and off quickly and are highlighted by the lively décor of Hector’s classroom (pictured), are the work of Bob Crowley, with Mark Henderson providing the overhead lighting for an institutional look that never succumbs to boredom. [Hudson Sound and Light supplied the lights and Sound Associates the audio.] A treat from across the Atlantic, The History Boys is a class act all the way.
It has come to this: A musical based on an Adam Sandler movie is now on Broadway. Fortunately, it’s not Happy Madison at the Al Hirschfeld but one of the comedian’s more appealing vehicles, 1998’s The Wedding Singer, which co-starred Drew Barrymore. Co-written by the film’s author, Tim Herlihy, the show recycles most of the plot and gags (the guy next to me recited along as avidly as if it were Shakespeare), cashes in on Broadway’s current New Jersey craze by ramping up the Joisey humor, then goes all Hairspray cutesy-ditsy for a finale set, inexplicably, in a faux White House wedding chapel in Las Vegas. The only explanation is that the co-writer and lyricist, Chad Beguelin, composer Matthew Sklar, and director John Rando (at the midpoint between the high of Urinetown and the smashing low of Dance of the Vampires, which is no longer on his resume) wanted to shoe-horn in more 80’s gags, but by then, the party was over, and The Wedding Singer needed some vocal rest. But most of it is bright, pastiche, junk food fun, and there is one excellent love song, “If I Told You,” that may one day become a staple at weddings.
The big hair (the work of David Brian Brown), big clothes, and big colors of the decade are ably worn by a pleasant cast that includes singer/songwriter Stephen Lynch, in a winning Broadway debut, in the Sandler role of the lovelorn wedding singer, Robbie, and Laura Benanti, a musical veteran who’s more Connecticut in looks and bearing but nothing less than completely agreeable as the otherwise-engaged object of his affection, Julia. Playing singing-and-dancing sight gags in Gregory Gale’s parodic outfits, bringing the era of Boy George, Madonna (V.1), and Flashdance roaring back, are Kevin Cahoon, Amy Spanger, and Felicia Finley, in the small but high-decibel role of Robbie’s heavy-metal ex, Linda. Tony winner Scott Pask adds to the fun with any number of tacky Jersey sets, done up in album-cover hues, including a revolving restaurant that spins around a Newark refinery backdrop—having grown up in the Garden State, however, I can say with some authority that his mall is far more SoCal than period NJ. Peter Hylenski cranks the bold and brassy sound. [PRG provided the lights and sound, Hudson Scenic fabrication and painting, Scenic Technologies fabrication and automation, and Jauchem and Meeh the water gag.] I had a reasonably good time but, please, no Little Nicky musicals.
In a Brechtian touch, there is no curtain call at the end of the Roundabout’s revival of The Threepenny Opera. Which is a good thing, as, with the exception of three of the castmembers (and one outstanding design contribution) there is nothing to applaud in this exhausting production, which adds a dash of homosexuality and a pinch of transvestism to Brecht and Kurt Weill’s vision of London lowlife and ends up as hip and daring as Grandma’s garters. The director, Scott Elliott, doesn’t seem to know the difference between an alienation effect and alienation, and impatience, followed by boredom, set in early over the course of three very long hours at Studio 54. The venue’s 70s heyday seems to have been the inspiration of this production, which might have benefited from an environmental staging similar to the one its prior theatrical tenant, Cabaret, received. (Not that I wasn’t grateful for the comfy chair a more traditional production guarantees.) That revival’s star, Alan Cumming, plays the wily Macheath here, but he has long since ceased to be an actor and is now more of a pansexual, pixie-ish “personality,” and is an absolute zero in the part; as the censorious Mrs. Peachum, the ghastly Ana Gasteyer is even less than that, and she has many of the songs, delivered in an unbearable metallic screech. On the other hand, Jim Dale is delightful in a vaudeville turn as Macheath’s nemesis, Mr. Peachum, disproportionately so; the entire balance of the production tips in his favor. And there are flavorful turns by two pop stars—as Polly, the ineffably weird Nellie McKay, who is sure casting if David Lynch ever attempts a musical, and, as Jenny, Cyndi Lauper (the real one, not the fake Wedding Singer one), who scores one of the very few laughs of the evening by pronouncing the famed abbey as “Wessminsta.”
The real star of the show is LD Jason Lyons, who from scene to scene makes magic with a variety of sources, from LED readouts to liberal applications of neon signage. An orgy is brightened by his blacklit undergarments, and Macheath’s imminent demise toward the end of the production is signified by beams of light that criss-cross the stage over his head. It’s a glorious demonstration and the one highlight of a design that includes Derek McLane’s minimal sets, Isaac Mizrahi’s fey buccaneer-type costumes, and a Ken Travis sound design that should really dial down when Gasteyer shows her face. [PRG supplied the lights, Trans-lux the LED sign, Sound Associates the sound, and Showman Fabricators the scenery and automation.] This production of The Threepenny Opera could easily be subtitled “The Ballad of the Tragically Misguided.”
Slightly more tolerable, or, at least, slightly shorter, is this week’s third musical, Lestat, which is also the third vampire musical to hit Broadway in recent years. What spawned this curious subgenre I don’t know, but I never miss a vampire musical, and this one is very much in the same, underachieving vein (ahem) of its two failed predecessors, with lavish overproduction failing to compensate for a lackluster score (by Elton John and Bernie Taupin), book (Linda Woolverton), direction (Robert Jess Roth), and performance—in short, any real reason for being at the Palace, except that vampires are thought to be cool and exploitable and never mind their disastrous musical history. The new show lumps together Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles to emerge as a bloodsucker version of The Color Purple. It’s an empowerment fable about how the wandering Lestat (Hugh Panaro) learns to accept himself after several hundred years’ worth of trial and tribulation, punctuated by fancy Howard Werner/Lightswitch projections that erupt on the set columns whenever he puts the bite on a fellow castmember. It’s gloomy, doomy, and thoroughly anemic, save for one humorous number, when the vampirized Claudia, a schemer in a little girl’s body, sings “I Want More,” and a trickle of camp when Lestat’s undead mom (Carolee Carmello) decides to hit the road and join the jet-set world of Euro-vampires. I had the most fun reading Rice’s hilariously self-aggrandizing bio in the Playbill.
Most of the $12 million budget has gone toward the design, which includes Derek McLane’s opulent New Orleans settings in Act II, extravagantly lit by Kenneth Posner in some striking colors. The visual concept designer, Dave McKean, has clearly pulled his Hammer and Universal horror DVDs off the shelf for this voluptuous production, which is further enhanced by an enveloping Jonathan Deanssoundscape and Susan Hilferty’s fetching period costumes. [PRG supplied the lights, audio, video, and much of the scenic and automation, with Jauchem and Meeh behind the special effects.] But it’s all in a losing cause, and collectors of musical flops are advised to get to the Palace quick as Lestat, staked by the critics, is destined to join Dance of the Vampires and Dracula the Musical as one of the costlier failures of its ilk. --Robert Cashill