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A THEATRICAL FEAST FOR SPRING

There is so much really good theater available to all, both on and off Broadway right now, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. In the past 4 weeks, I’ve seen so many plays and musicals, my head feels like it’s spinning. And wonder of wonders, a lot of it is REALLY GOOD!!!

To start, there is a humdinger of a crowd-pleaser running at the Marquis Theatre that has audiences cheering and tapping their toes, and until I actually saw it, I would never have believed it! It’s Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5”, based on the 70’s movie that starred Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Miss Parton herself. The movie, to this day, remains a guilty pleasure of mine; who could NOT respond to the charms of those three actresses having the time of their life? Well, the material has been transformed into a winning musical, with songs composed by Dolly, direction by favorite Joe Mantello and fancy footwork by Andy Blankenbuehler. It’s a major crowd-pleaser filled with terrific dance numbers, all the zingers you might remember from the movie and three performances by three fabulous Broadway talents good enough to knock your socks off. There’s Allison Janney, best known for “The West Wing”, in the Lily Tomlin role, and although Miss Janney has never done a musical and can’t exactly be called a “singer”, she does remarkably well both singing and dancing, and has impeccable comic timing to boot. Stephanie J Block, so memorable as Liza in “The Boy From Oz” a few seasons back, knocks it out of the park in the Jane Fonda role, especially belting out the 11:00 number, “Get Out And Stay Out”. And Megan Hilty essentially plays Dolly in the, what else, the Dolly Parton role, but sounds so much like the lady herself both speaking and singing, that if you close your eyes, you’d swear it was the real thing. There is major support from Broadway stalwart Marc Kudisch as the creepy chauvinist Franklin Hart and as Roz, Kathy Fitzgerald kicks butt, especially in her ladies room showstopper, “Heart To Hart”. Admittedly, those fans of the movie will swoon over hearing every one of their favorite lines coming at them live from the stage of the Marquis, so it’s not exactly an ORIGINAL musical, but it’s done with so much joy and such a great sense of fun, it doesn’t matter a tick. You’ll have a ball.

James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels are a block away on 45th Street, also having the time of their lives, in a very funny, very evil little comedy called “The God Of Carnage”, by the author of one of my favorite plays, “Art”. Yasmine Reza has written a deceptive little piece about the breakdown of civilization as performed in the living room of a couple whose son has been assaulted by another boy. Mr. Gandolfini and Miss Harden play the parents of the attackee, Mr., Daniels and Miss Davis, the parents of the attacker. What begins as a quiet meeting to decide how best to tackle the situation dissolves into a drunken debacle complete with projectile vomiting, tulip shredding and drunken hysteria. And yes, folks, it IS a comedy. The cast is impeccable, especially Gandolfini, whose evolution from proper parent to hulking caveman is a joy to behold. They do this knockdown 8 times a week, people, and they’re only scheduled until July (PLEASE extend, you wonderful actors), so do your darnedest to get to see “God Of Carnage” before the original cast is gone.
I also want to recommend the thrilling revival of Schiller’s “Mary Stuart”, also a limited run, mainly for its two leading ladies, Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer, who play Elizabeth, Queen of England, and Mary, Queen of Scots respectively. These are two fierce actresses doing the best work of their careers, ably assisted by American actors John Benjamin Hickey and Chandler Williams. Funny how a 210 year old play can still hold you so fixed in its grasp.
The musical “Next To Normal”, with a scintillating Alice Ripley at its center, is a huge surprise, especially for a musical dealing with, of all subjects, a woman with bipolar disorder. I resisted even buying tickets to this one, and yet, was hooked within the first 10 minutes. Distinctively different from “9 To 5”, oh yes, but another crowd pleaser, nonetheless, it goes for the jugular and never lets go. The music and lyrics are fresh and exciting, and Alice Ripley is giving one of the best performances on Broadway right now. This is going to be a major contender at the Tony Awards this year, and Ripley seems to me a shoe-in for Best Actress in a Musical. Don’t let the subject matter put you off “Next To Normal”. It’s one to experience.

And off-Broadway, I have to extol the simple joys of the new production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, playing at the Barrow Street Theatre. The playing space has been reconfigured so the audience surrounds the “stage”, and the actors walk among you as they perform this classic piece of American theater, surely one of the finest American plays of the last century. I’ve seen many productions of “Our Town’, but this one is a keeper. And there is a theatrical moment late in this production that grabs you and shakes you upside down. It’s a beautiful production of a beautiful play.